I might ease your pain, but only if you’re sad: The impact of the empathized emotion in the empathy-helping association

Abstract

Ample research demonstrated that empathizing with someone in need promotes helping that person. Two studies examined whether this effect of empathy on helping behavior holds across different emotional reactions expressed by a target in need. Results of Study 1 indicate that perspective taking with a sad needy target increased empathic concern which, in turn, fostered helping the individual. This relation was not found for participants taking the perspective of angry or disgusted needy targets. Study 2 provides further support for the underlying mechanism of the results of Study 1. Perspective taking with a sad needy target increased empathizers’ empathic concern because perception of target neediness was increased. Again, this pattern was not found for perspective taking with an angry needy target. The findings correspond to theorizing on the role of emotions in person perception. Hence, the current research provides insights regarding the boundary conditions of the empathy-helping association.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We opted to exclude participants who indicated that German was not their native language given that our study material and our experimental variation required adequate speech comprehension. Moreover, it is known that cultural background affects information processing (Oyserman and Lee 2008), and by excluding these participants from analyses, we aimed at keeping these factors constant across the sample.

  2. 2.

    Different from what Batson and colleagues usually do (cf. Batson et al. 1989, 1991, 2002), we computed the empathic concern score by including not only participants’ answers regarding the empathic emotions but also whether they believed Nina to be a good person, wanted to meet her and considered her to be trustworthy. However, when computing the same analyses reported in Study 2 with an empathic concern score excluding the respective items results do not change.

  3. 3.

    As control variables, we also assessed person perception of the target by including items on perceived warmth and competence of the target (cf., Fiske et al. 2002; Cuddy et al. 2007). We included these control variables given that Cuddy et al. (2007) showed different patterns of perceived warmth and competence to be associated with different kinds of behavior (amongst them helping behavior). However, perceived warmth and competence did not predict helping behavior (all ps > .487). Correspondingly, indirect analyses did not reveal a significant indirect effect of the independent variable (i.e., sadness perspective-taking condition) on helping behavior via mean warmth nor mean competence. Also, no indirect effect was observed of the other two conditions (i.e., anger or disgust perspective-taking condition) on helping behavior via warmth or competence (i.e. all CI95 % included zero). Furthermore, including the warmth and competence scores into analyses reported in Study 2 did not change results substantially. We also checked for moderating effect of participants’ mood which did not occur.

  4. 4.

    We decided to assess participants’ perception of target neediness after assessing their empathic concern because the questions regarding Nina’s need for help fitted the format of our control questions with regard to Nina’ perceived warmth and competence (cf. cf., Fiske et al. 2007; Cuddy et al. 2007) which we included again in this study.

  5. 5.

    Analyzing the effect of our experimental conditions on the warmth and competence scores, we found a significant main effect of perspective taking on perceived competence, in that participants perceived Nina as more competent in the perspective-taking condition (M = 4.22, SE = 0.11) compared to the objective condition (M = 3.86, SE = 0.12; F(1114) = 5.32, p = .023, \(\eta_{\text{part}}^{2}\) = 0.05). No other main effect or interaction effect reached statistical significance (all Fs < 1). Furthermore, we found a significant main effect of emotion on perceived warmth, in that participants perceived Nina as warmer in the sadness condition (M = 4.50, SE = 0.13) compared to the anger condition (M = 3.84, SE = 0.13; F(1114) = 13.67, p < .001, \(\eta_{\text{part}}^{2}\) = 0.11). No other main effect or interaction effect reached statistical significance (all Fs < 1). Additionally, we checked whether participants’ sadness and anger was affected by our experimental manipulations. Analyses reveal that participants report marginally significant more anger in the perspective-taking condition (M = 2.75, SE = 0.21) compared to the objective condition (M = 2.22, SE = 0.23; F(1115) = 3.00, p = .086, \(\eta_{\text{part}}^{2}\) = 0.03). For reported anger, no other main effect or interaction effect reaches statistical significance (all Fs < 1). With regard to sadness, analyses revealed a significant interaction of our experimental conditions on participants’ reported sadness (F(1115) = 4.62, p = .034, \(\eta_{\text{part}}^{2}\) = 0.04). The pattern observed here is similar to the pattern observed for empathic concern. In the sadness perspective-taking condition, participants report increased sadness (M = 3.67, SE = 0.31) compared to the sadness objective condition (M = 2.76, SE = 0.32; F(1115) = 4.18, p = .043, \(\eta_{\text{part}}^{2}\) = 0.04). No significant difference is found between the anger perspective-taking condition (M = 3.21, SE = 0.32) and the anger objective condition (M = 3.67, SE = 0.33; F(1115) = 1.02, p = .316, \(\eta_{\text{part}}^{2}\) = 0.01). The pattern of results for reported sadness is very similar to the pattern observed for empathic concern given that sadness is closely related to the empathetic concern items such as moved.

  6. 6.

    Beyond these main analyses we also tested whether the experimental conditions affect participants’ helping inclination (i.e., numbers of calls participants were willing to make). As in Study 1, an ANOVA with Perspective taking (yes vs. no) and Emotion (sadness vs. anger as independent and number of calls as dependent variable did not reveal any significant effect of the experimental conditions on number of calls participants indicated they were willing to make (all Fs < 1). Additionally, as mentioned above, we also assessed participants’ perception of Nina’s need per se (i.e., without relating it to a possible dependency to other individuals). Here, an ANOVA with the two experimental factors revealed a significant main effect of the manipulated emotional experiences of the target in need on participants’ perception of Nina’s need per se. Participants in the sadness conditions perceived Nina’s need per se to be higher (M = 5.36, SE = 0.18) than participants in the anger conditions (M = 4.79, SE = 0.19; F(1111) = 4.65, p = .033, \(\eta_{\text{part}}^{2}\) = 0.04). No other main effect or interaction effect reached statistical significance (all Fs < 1). Although we had no explicit hypothesis with regard to perception of Nina’s neediness per se, this finding is in line with our theorizing that sadness involves appraisals of not being able to cope with a situation which is most likely related to perceptions of how need-causing a situation per se is.

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Correspondence to Claudia Sassenrath.

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Claudia Sassenrath, Stefan Pfattheicher and Johannes Keller declares that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Sassenrath, C., Pfattheicher, S. & Keller, J. I might ease your pain, but only if you’re sad: The impact of the empathized emotion in the empathy-helping association. Motiv Emot 41, 96–106 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9586-2

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Keywords

  • Empathy
  • Perspective taking
  • Empathic concern
  • Emotions
  • Helping