Cognitive Processing

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 147–165 | Cite as

Empathy, Einfühlung, and aesthetic experience: the effect of emotion contagion on appreciation of representational and abstract art using fEMG and SCR

  • Gerger Gernot
  • Matthew Pelowski
  • Helmut Leder
Research Report


Since the advent of the concept of empathy in the scientific literature, it has been hypothesized, although not necessarily empirically verified, that empathic processes are essential to aesthetic experiences of visual art. We tested how the ability to “feel into” (“Einfühlung”) emotional content—a central aspect of art empathy theories—affects the bodily responses to and the subjective judgments of representational and abstract paintings. The ability to feel into was measured by a standardized pre-survey on “emotional contagion”—the ability to pick up and mirror, or in short to “feel into”, emotions, which often overlaps with higher general or interpersonal empathetic abilities. Participants evaluated the artworks on several aesthetic dimensions (liking, valence, moving, and interest), while their bodily reactions indicative of empathetic engagement (facial electromyography—EMG, and skin conductance responses—SCR) were recorded. High compared to low emotion contagion participants showed both more congruent and more intense bodily reactions (EMG and SCR) and aesthetic evaluations (higher being moved, valence, and interest) and also liked the art more. This was largely the case for both representational and abstract art, although stronger with the representational category. Our findings provide tentative evidence for recent arguments by art theorists for a close “empathic” mirroring of emotional content. We discuss this interpretation, as well as a potential tie between emotion contagion and a general increase in emotion intensity, both of which may impact, in tandem, the experience and evaluation of art.


Empathy Emotion contagion Art Facial electromyography (EMG) Skin conductance responses (SCR) 



This article was supported by the Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowship awarded to Matthew Pelowski (MSCA-IF-2014-EF: Individual Fellowships, 655379). We would like to especially thank Christina Hirschbiegel and Elizabeth Noble for their big support in recruiting participants and collecting the data for this project as part of their master thesis appointment. We would also like thank the two reviewers for their insightful suggestions on a previous version of the manuscript.

Supplementary material

10339_2017_800_MOESM1_ESM.doc (131 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 131 kb)


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Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods, Faculty of PsychologyUniversity of ViennaViennaAustria

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