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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Neural and Behavioral Basis of Empathy for Positive and Negative Emotions

  • Author(s): Morelli, Sylvia Annette
  • Advisor(s): Lieberman, Matthew D
  • et al.

Empathy provides a window into another person's mind, creating a shared experience between two individuals. This intimate view of another person's emotional world often makes the empathizer feel more connected to the other person and may motivate the empathizer to respond to the other's emotional needs. While past studies have investigated the underlying psychological and neural mechanisms for this fundamental human experience, researchers have predominantly focused on examining empathy for other's negative emotions (i.e. negative empathy). Therefore, the current studies examined the neural and behavioral basis of empathy for positive emotions (i.e. positive empathy) and negative empathy.

Study 1 examined the relationship between empathy and helping, aggression, social connection, loneliness, and life satisfaction at the trait and daily level. In this two-week diary study, 102 participants completed end-of-day surveys on each of these variables, as well as trait measures. Both positive empathy and negative empathy (i.e. traditional components of empathy) contributed to prosocial behavior, but showed weak and inconsistent relationships with aggression across levels of analysis. Positive empathy, compared to negative empathy, was the strongest predictor of social functioning and life satisfaction at both trait and daily levels, suggesting that positive empathy is particularly important for enhanced social and personal well-being. While past research has not distinguished between positive and negative empathy, the results of this study demonstrate that positive empathy may be a distinct component of empathy that has important behavioral consequences in everyday life.

Study 2 measured neural responses during positive and negative empathy to help identify neural systems that support different components of empathy - perspective-taking, affective congruence, and prosocial motivation. In addition, we examined if brain regions commonly activated during positive and negative empathy would relate to real-world helping behavior. In this study, 32 participants completed an fMRI session assessing empathic responses to individuals experiencing pain, anxiety, and happiness, as well as completing a two-week daily diary in which they reported on daily helping behavior. The results suggest that empathy may be evoked through two different pathways, the mirror neuron or mentalizing systems, as well as engaging affective regions that are congruent with the target's emotion. Finally, empathy generally activated a neural region associated with prosocial motivation (i.e. septal area), and activity in this region was positively associated with prosocial behavior in the real world.

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