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Intentional and Unintentional Empathy for Pain Among Physicians and Nonphysicians


Empathy can be both beneficial and costly. This trade-off is pertinent for physicians who must care for patients while maintaining emotional distance to avoid burnout. Prior work using self-report and neurophysiological measures has found mixed evidence for differences in empathy between physicians and nonphysicians. We used implicit measurement and multinomial modeling to examine intentional empathy (IE) and unintentional empathy (UE) for pain among physicians and demographically matched nonphysicians. Relative to nonphysicians, physicians displayed greater ability to judge the painfulness of target experiences (i.e., IE). Contrary to some prior work, however, physicians and nonphysicians displayed comparable spontaneous resonance with distracter experiences (i.e., UE). These findings suggest that physicians may be more likely than nonphysicians to empathize with others’ pain when empathy aligns with their overt goals.

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