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Is Empathy the Default Response to Suffering? A Meta-Analytic Evaluation of Perspective Taking’s Effect on Empathic Concern


We conducted a series of meta-analytic tests on experiments in which participants read perspective-taking instructions-that is, written instructions to imagine a distressed persons' point of view ("imagine-self" and "imagine-other" instructions), or to inhibit such actions ("remain-objective" instructions)-and afterwards reported how much empathic concern they experienced upon learning about the distressed person. If people spontaneously empathize with others, then participants who receive remain-objective instructions should report less empathic concern than do participants in a "no-instructions" control condition; if people can deliberately increase how much empathic concern they experience, then imagine-self and imagine-other instructions should increase empathic concern relative to not receiving any instructions. Random-effects models revealed that remain-objective instructions reduced empathic concern, but "imagine" instructions did not significantly increase it. The results were robust to most corrections for bias. Our conclusions were not qualified by the study characteristics we examined, but most relevant moderators have not yet been thoroughly studied.

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