An Empathy Block

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Science  23 Mar 2007:
Vol. 315, Issue 5819, pp. 1639
DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5819.1639b

Everyday experience confirms the general belief that humans are social animals; the neural pathways subserving prosocial behaviors are a subject of current research, and the evolutionary origins of these behaviors are hotly debated. Although there is evidence that social exclusion can elicit redoubled efforts to develop social connections, the consequences of exclusion are predominantly negative—feeling hurt, acting belligerently, or adopting a lone-wolf lifestyle—and Twenge et al. have begun to examine what might mediate these apparently atypical responses.

Using a variety of experimental contexts (such as the canonical spilled-pencils incident) and measures (such as donations of money or cooperation in a prisoner's dilemma game), they find that being characterized as having a high likelihood of a prosocial lifestyle with many strong relationships, such as marriage, resulted in participants helping to pick up pencils (on average, 8 out of 20 spilled) versus the performance of those labeled as being apt to lead solitary lives (less than 1 pencil picked up). As to what factors mediate the extent (or absence) of prosocial behavior, some of the likely candidates (trusting the other or having a sense of belonging) did not register, whereas empathic concern did. Combining this finding with an earlier one, which showed that social exclusion activates the neural circuits encoding pain, produces the speculation that an after-effect of rejection is an emotional numbness or an inability to mirror the affective states of others. — GJC

J. Pers. Soc. Psych. 92, 56 (2007).

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