Meta-analysis of ERP investigations of pain empathy underlines methodological issues in ERP research

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Empathy has received considerable attention from the field of cognitive and social neuroscience. A significant portion of these studies used the event-related potential (ERP) technique to study the mechanisms of empathy for pain in others in different conditions and clinical populations. These show that specific ERP components measured during the observation of pain in others are modulated by several factors and altered in clinical populations. However, issues present in this literature such as analytical flexibility and lack of type 1 error control raise doubts regarding the validity and reliability of these conclusions. The current study compiled the results and methodological characteristics of 40 studies using ERP to study empathy of pain in others. The results of the meta-analysis suggest that the centro-parietal P3 and late positive potential component are sensitive to the observation of pain in others, while the early N1 and N2 components are not reliably associated with vicarious pain observation. The review of the methodological characteristics shows that the presence of selective reporting, analytical flexibility and lack of type 1 error control compromise the interpretation of these results. The implication of these results for the study of empathy and potential solutions to improve future investigations are discussed.

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