The impact of individuation on the bases of human empathic responding

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Abstract

While there is substantial overlap in the neural systems underlying empathy for people we know as opposed to strangers, social distance has been shown to significantly moderate empathic neural responses towards the negative experiences of others. Intriguingly however, variance in empathic neural responses towards known and unknown targets has not been reflected by behavioral differences as indexed by self-reported empathic ratings. One explanation for this disconnect is that empathic evaluations of known and unknown individuals draw on different bases (e.g. target identity/reactions) within the empathic process. To test this hypothesis, we utilized high density EEG to assess how individuating targets with personal names moderated the link between behavioral pain ratings and attentional processing oriented towards (a) initial target processing and (b) subsequent expressions target discomfort. Consistent with prior findings, no differences in pain ratings between individuated and unindividuated targets was observed. However, individual mean pain rating differences for individuated targets was strongly positively related to attentional processing levels, indexed by the P300, during the initial presentation of those targets, a relationship absent for unindividuated targets. In contrast, pain ratings for unindividuated targets was positively related to levels of attentional processing, indexed by the Late Positive Potential (LPP), during the subsequent discomfort expression stage. Furthermore, the LPP response to individuated target discomfort was positively linked to behavioral measures of emotional expressivity whereas the LPP response to unindividuated target discomfort was positively associated with cognitive appraisal. These findings suggest that individuation can significantly shift the bases of empathic responding.

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