Empathy in schizophrenia: impaired resonance

  • Helene Haker
  • Wulf Rössler
Original Paper


Resonance is the phenomenon of one person unconsciously mirroring the motor actions as basis of emotional expressions of another person. This shared representation serves as a basis for sharing physiological and emotional states of others and is an important component of empathy. Contagious laughing and contagious yawning are examples of resonance. In the interpersonal contact with individuals with schizophrenia we can often experience impaired empathic resonance. The aim of this study is to determine differences in empathic resonance—in terms of contagion by yawning and laughing—in individuals with schizophrenia and healthy controls in the context of psychopathology and social functioning. We presented video sequences of yawning, laughing or neutral faces to 43 schizophrenia outpatients and 45 sex- and age-matched healthy controls. Participants were video-taped during the stimulation and rated regarding contagion by yawning and laughing. In addition, we assessed self-rated empathic abilities (Interpersonal Reactivity Index), psychopathology (Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale in the schizophrenia group resp. Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire in the control group), social dysfunction (Social Dysfunction Index) and executive functions (Stroop, Fluency). Individuals with schizophrenia showed lower contagion rates for yawning and laughing. Self-rated empathic concern showed no group difference and did not correlate with contagion. Low rate of contagion by laughing correlated with the schizophrenia negative syndrome and with social dysfunction. We conclude that impaired resonance is a handicap for individuals with schizophrenia in social life. Blunted observable resonance does not necessarily reflect reduced subjective empathic concern.


Contagion Imitation Laughing Social cognition Yawning 



Contagious laughing


Chlorpromazine equivalents


Contagious yawning


Interpersonal Reactivity Index


Empathic concern subscale of the IRI


Fantasy subscale of the IRI


Personal distress subscale of the IRI


Perspective taking subscale of the IRI


Mirror neuron system


Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale


Social Dysfunction Index


Stimulus incongruent laughing


Stimulus incongruent yawning


Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire


Theory of Mind



We thank Martina Scherrer for her assistance in data acquisition and Vladeta Ajdacic-Gross for his assistance in data analysis.

Conflict of interest statement

This research was supported by an unconditional grant of the Swiss Network Schizophrenia Foundation (“Stiftung Netzwerk Schizophrenie”).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of General and Social PsychiatryPsychiatric University Hospital of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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