Empathy is a social emotion. It comes in response to bearing witness to the emotions of others, usually persons but also other beings thought capable of experiencing emotions. Prototypically, an empathic reaction is evoked by the immediate observation of others’ acute emotions, and it manifests itself in an emotional experience that the witness believes to have some degree of similarity with the witnessed emotions.
The evocation of empathic reactions is not limited, however, to the direct observation of others’ emotions in terms of their facial, bodily, and other behavioral expressions. Empathy can be evoked by the presentation of information about the circumstances of others that are presumed to cause acute emotions in these others. Moreover, empathy can be evoked by information about others’ situations and actions that are presumed to have been caused by acute emotions these others experienced earlier (Stotland 1969; Hoffman 1978; Zillmann 2006b). The evoked empathic reaction itself constitutes an emotional experience, primarily because it is associated with increased excitement and awareness thereof. This awareness tends to foster a subjective appraisal of the reaction as feeling with or feeling for the observed party.
Theories of Empathy
The theoretical examination of empathy has pursued two different objectives. First, it has addressed the biological function or purpose of empathic reactivity, essentially the question why we empathize. Second, it has focused on the mediation of empathic reactivity in psychological, physiological, and behavioral terms and yielded various mechanisms of how we empathize.
The phylogenetic roots of human empathy have been derived from an abundance of empathy-like reactions in numerous animal species (Plutchik 1987; Buck & Ginsburg 1997). The principal observation is that genetically fixed expressions of emotional reactions, when witnessed, trigger genetically fixed like reactions, and that such emotional contagion fosters behavioral coordination that ultimately serves the survival of the species.
The coordination of flight by the empathic spread of fear in groups of endangered animals is a prime illustration of the adaptive value of empathy. The adaptive utility of empathic contagion extends to all behaviors of consequence, including coordinated aggression.
Empathy as Reflexive Reactivity
Theories that base human empathy on the reflexive contagion of emotions may be considered direct extensions of bio-evolutionary proposals. These theories posit that, as we observe others’ emotions, innate response dispositions initiate parallel emotions that resist inhibitory efforts (McDougall 1922). In a more elaborate form of this rationale, it is posited that observers, in giving way to innate dispositions, involuntarily mimic the observed party’s posture and gestures, and that afferent feedback from this mimicry liberates empathic affect because it connects to the observers’ affective experiences associated with the mimicked expressions (Lipps 1907; Tomkins 1962; Izard 1977).
The recent discovery of so-called mirror neurons has given support to the involuntary nature of empathic response by showing that the perception of others’ actions excites areas in the human motor cortex that correspond with those controlling the observed actions, thus creating a propensity for empathic motor mimicry (Buccino et al. 2001; Fadiga et al. 2005).
Empathy as Acquired Reactivity
Theories that project empathic reactivity as acquired invoke traditional learning paradigms. Socially parallel affective experiences define the forum in which empathic response connections are formed on a trial-by-trial basis. As particular environmental stimuli jointly and concurrently induce specific emotional experiences in both an observed person and an observer, the observed person’s expression of emotion becomes associated with the observer’s own emotion. With repeated experiences of this kind, the expression of specific emotions observed in other people will gradually assume the power to elicit the same or a similar emotion in observers (Humphrey 1922; Aronfreed 1970).
Such acquisition of empathic reactivity is developmentally relevant and, accordingly, considered essential during childhood and adolescence (Hoffman 1978). Regardless of developmental considerations, however, acquired empathic reactivity is spontaneous, but may be more malleable than reflexively controlled empathy.
Empathy as Cognitively Mediated Reactivity
In contrast to theories that base empathic reactivity on built-in or acquired elicitors, cognitive theories project empathy as a result of deliberate and mostly conscious cognitive efforts, along with deliberately or spontaneously recruited associations in the cognitive network of the person who witnesses or is informed about another’s emotions. The deliberateness of empathy is apparent in the formula that characterizes cognitive theory, namely “to put oneself into another’s position.” Such cognitive assimilation of another’s emotional experiences places considerable demands on the imagination and resolve of those who attempt to empathize. The purely cognitive efforts are usually assisted, however, by the encounter of, and connection with, related experiences of the responding person. The result is that memory-based affective reactivity enriches the experience of cognitively relating to others’ emotions and, in fact, tends to render it an emotional one (Rogers 1967; Stotland 1969; Smith 1971, 1st pub. 1759).
As empathic reactivity via the cognitive assimilation of others’ emotions presupposes comparatively mature mental skills as well as rich emotional experience, it is usually considered a domain of post-adolescents and adults.
Integration of Theoretical Approaches
The various mechanisms of empathic reactivity that are proposed in these distinctive theories can be considered established by pertinent research findings (Davis 1996; Eisenberg 2000).
It has become clear, however, that the validity of each of the theories is partial to, and ultimately limited by, specific situational and behavioral contexts. Moreover, it is apparent that, in producing empathic reactivity, the operation of several of the specific mechanisms is usually confounded. For instance, the reaction to witnessing others’ acute emotions may be reflexive initially but then be supplemented by acquired dispositions, and it may eventually involve reflection of the circumstances that further deepens the empathic experience.
This likely interplay of mechanisms that contribute to empathic reactivity is addressed in integrative theories such as the three-factor theory of empathy (Zillmann 2006b). The three-pronged approach entails evolutionary considerations in a “dispositional factor” that combines reflexive and acquired response components in the elicitation of spontaneous and impulsive incipient empathic reactivity. An “excitatory factor” focuses on the emotional intensity of empathic reactivity that is analogously mediated by reflexive and acquired dispositions. The third, “experiential factor,” addresses the contemplation of the emotion-evoking circumstances as well as of the evoked reactivity for both the observed party and the empathizer. As this contemplation is likely to activate salient emotional memories in the empathizer, the experience may be greatly enhanced, even in excitatory terms. Contemplation may also function as a corrective, however, and diminish reactivity that is deemed inappropriate under the given circumstances.
When Empathy Fails
In accordance with evolutionary rationales, empathy may be considered to constitute a default system for affective reactivity in that concordant affective response is generally more adaptive than alternative reactions. However, except for incipient empathic reactivity that is reflexively controlled, empathy is subject to curtailment and even to hedonic reversal.
The condition that is primarily responsible for the eradication of empathic response inclinations as well as for the hedonic reversal of empathic reactions is the affective disposition toward those whose emotions are witnessed or inferred (Zillmann 2006a, 2006b). Put simply, dispositions of indifference do not appreciably engage the affections of witnesses to others’ emotions, and those who hold dispositions of disdain and hatred toward witnessed parties are bound to enjoy these parties’ misfortunes and suffering as much as they would be distressed by witnessing their good fortunes and happiness.
Dispositions of enmity, then, are not only capable of eliminating all empathic inclinations but will foster hedonically reversed affective reactions whose experiential intensity tends to be comparable to that of empathic reactions by people with dispositions of amity. To the extent that dispositions of enmity are stronger than those of amity, which is frequently the case, reversed affect can be more intensely experienced than empathic affect. The reversal of empathy can be considered accomplished by the same mechanisms that yield empathy. Analogous to the formation of empathic dispositions, the dispositions for hedonically reversed reactivity, also referred to as counterempathy (Stotland 1969) and discordant affective reactivity (Berger 1962), may be acquired via repeated learning trials. Additionally, reflective assessments, culminating in moral judgments, may not only disapprove and censure empathic reactivity, but may endorse and actually demand discordant affective reactions.
Empathy and Its Reversal in Media Communication
Empathic and counterempathic reactivity is obviously not limited to immediately witnessed social situations but extends to simulated realities, such as in the cinematographic representations of actual events or in linguistic accounts of these events.
Research evidence leaves no doubt about the fact that representations of realities are capable of engaging the emotions of respondents as strongly as the direct observation of these realities. Depending on affective dispositions held toward people in reality programs or the news, empathic and counterempathic reactivity to such programs abounds (Bente & Feist 2000; Zillmann & Knobloch 2001).
Surprisingly, empathic and counterempathic reactivity is not necessarily diminished by the unreality of depictions. Such reactivity occurs despite the fact that respondents may recognize and, at least at times, be aware of the fabricated nature of presentations. In fact, fictional narration has been viewed as the ultimate forum for empathy and related affections (Zillmann 2006a).
The principal reasons for the apparent power of fictional media presentations to evoke empathic and counterempathic reactions are the following: (1) the dispositions toward characters, whether of admiration or contempt and disdain, are readily created by the display of the characters’ morally approved versus condemned intentions and actions (Raney 2006); (2) the characters’ experience of good or bad fortunes and the respective emotional consequences thereof can be displayed in greater detail than usually can be perceived in the direct observation of events (Zillmann 2006a); and (3) segments of the narrative are compacted and can be arranged such that residual excitation from empathic or counterempathic reactions elicited by some segments will intensify empathic or counterempathic reactions to segments that more or less immediately follow.
Given these manipulatory possibilities, elements of fictional narratives can be creatively composed so as to maximize empathy in order to make happy occasions wonderfully enjoyable and, analogously, heart-rending outcomes supremely tragic. At the same time, fictional narratives can be arranged so as to maximize counterempathy in order to torment those who deem the good fortunes of resented characters a travesty and to give unmitigated joy to those who consider patently brutal punishment of evil characters their just deserts. The latter consideration points to a potential benefit of fictional portrayals that feature the liberal punishment of wrongdoers. Only the fictional format allows unhampered counterempathic rejoicing upon witnessing the destructive, punitive treatment of those deemed deserving of such fate.
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