Threat Reduction as a Novel Mechanism Linking Empathy and Prosocial Behavior
Michael Poulin Principal Investigator
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Empirical research has long demonstrated that empathy, the human ability to understand and attend to the emotions of others, promotes actions on behalf of individuals who are suffering or otherwise in need, such as donating time and money or performing an unpleasant task on their behalf. In principle, this knowledge could be used to promote helping behavior where it is most needed: For example, in the caring professions or in the domains of volunteering, charitable giving, or supporting close others. <br/><br/>Surprisingly, however, it is presently unclear why empathy leads to helping others, and this lack of knowledge limits researchers' ability to predict under what conditions empathy is most likely, most effective, or most amenable to intervention. To date, attempts to explain empathy's effects have predominantly focused on potential helpers' feelings of distress about a person in need, emotions called compassion or empathic concern, or on the empathy-induced belief that a person in need is part of oneself. However, it is not at all certain that these two models exhaust the list of possible explanations for empathy's effects. The present research aims to expand the terms of the debate over empathy and helping by focusing on a novel explanation for empathy's effects: reduced feelings of threat and anxiety driven by the function of the neurohormones (hormones released within the brain) oxytocin and vasopressin. <br/><br/>A series of five laboratory-based studies will test this prediction. Most of these experiments will involve assigning participants to laboratory conditions in which they either do or do not feel empathy for a person in need, assessing participants' feelings of threat and anxiety via reaction-time and cardiovascular measures, and observing participants' helping behavior towards the person in need. Across these studies, this research aims to demonstrate that: 1) empathy leads to reduced feelings of threat and anxiety, 2) reduced feelings of threat and anxiety account for the effects of empathy on helping, 3) oxytocin and vasopressin account for the effects of empathy on both feelings of threat/anxiety and prosocial behavior, 4) the effects of these neurohormones (which are strongly related to parental caregiving) are strongest on behalf of neotenous (baby-faced) individuals, and 5) empathy reduces cardiovascular reactions to stressful experiences.<br/><br/>In sum, this research will advance understanding of the psychological and biological mechanisms by which empathy promotes prosocial behavior. In so doing, this work will shed new light on the foundations of helping behaviors in humans, and may suggest avenues for encouraging helping in desired contexts. In addition, this research will help to explain why helping behavior and social connections more generally are beneficial for health and well-being, and may lay the groundwork for interventions to increase the health benefits of helping behavior by increasing the role of empathy in these activities. <br/><br/>In addition to the scientific and practical contributions of the findings from this research, the conduct of this research will provide training for graduate and undergraduate students in genetics, advanced statistical techniques, and psychophysiology. The university where this research will be conducted is ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, which will be reflected in those who participate in the research as well as the graduate and undergraduate members of the research team. Furthermore, a majority of the research team will be females, who have historically been underrepresented in the sciences.