Summary: A new study highlights the significant role of imagination in evoking empathy and driving prosocial behavior. While empathy is multifaceted, this research focuses on two aspects: personal distress and compassionate concern.
The study reveals that vividly imagining someone else’s problems increases personal distress, motivating individuals to offer help.
These findings break new ground in understanding the connection between mental experiences and actions, shedding light on why certain situations and individuals elicit more empathy than others.
Imagination plays a crucial role in evoking empathy and driving prosocial actions.
The study distinguishes between personal distress and compassionate concern as two facets of empathy.
Imagining distressful scenarios in another person’s life increases personal distress and willingness to help.
Source: McGill University
In a world grappling with deep-seated division and social upheaval, empathy has become more critical than ever.
But science suggests when it comes to evoking empathy, our imagination is more powerful than we previously thought. A new study, led by McGill researchers, reveals how the different ways to experience empathy affect our willingness to help others.
“Empathy is the ability to understand the situation of another person and is vital for prosocial behaviours. However, we know that empathy isn’t just one thing – we can experience it very differently, either as personal distress or compassionate concern for that other person,” explains McGill psychology professor Signy Sheldon, and the study’s co-author.
Until now, research in empathy has largely focused on how imagining helping another person can promote compassion, but not on how imagining another person’s situation affects empathy, which is usually our first mental course of action.
These findings, published inthe journal Emotion break new ground by showing how another form of empathy, personal distress, is more prominent when imagining those situations and may actually be a catalyst for taking action to help.
The joint effort between McGill and Albany University discovered that when we vividly imagine someone else’s problems in our minds, it makes us feel their pain more and motivates us to lend a helping hand.
The findings bring us closer to cracking the code of human behaviour and the link between our mental experiences and prosocial actions. These results are important for understanding why some situations and even people seem more empathetic than others.
Experimenting with empathy
If you hear your friend has lost a loved one or a neighbor’s car was stolen, what happens in your mind? Do you take on the pain of your friend or do you feel concern and compassion?
The research involved three online experiments where participants were asked to truly visualize themselves in another person’s shoes.
“Our experiments revealed that when people simulated distressful scenarios of other individuals, they felt much more personal distress than when these scenarios were not simulated. Interestingly, we also found imagining these scenarios in such a way increased the willingness to help that individual,” says Sheldon, Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory.
As imagining others’ situations is linked to episodic memory, this discovery raises significant questions about the link between memory capacity and empathy, which is an important avenue for further research.
From memory to motivation: Probing the relationship between episodic simulation, empathy, and helping intentions
Research has documented a strong link between constructing episodic simulations—vivid imaginations of specific events—and empathy. To date, most studies have used episodic simulations of helping someone to facilitate affective empathy and promote helping intentions, but have not studied how episodic simulations of another’s distressing situation affect empathy.
Moreover, affective empathy encompasses both personal distress (i.e., an egocentric experience of distress in response to another’s circumstances) and empathic concern (i.e., compassion for another), but we do not know how episodic simulations affect each component.
To address these questions, we ran three experiments testing how different episodic simulations influenced personal distress and empathic concern, and thereby willingness to help.
In Experiment 1 (N = 216), we found that participants who constructed episodic simulations of another’s situation reported increased personal distress (but not empathic concern) and increased helping intentions compared to a control group; additional analyses revealed that personal distress mediated the simulation effect on helping.
Furthermore, in Experiment 2 (N = 213), we contrasted episodic simulation of helping versus the distressing scenario; we found no differences in personal distress or helping intentions, but simulating helping led to higher empathic concern.
Experiment 3 (N = 571) included both simulation conditions and a control condition; we fully replicated our findings, additionally showing that simulating a helping interaction increased personal distress, empathic concern, and helping intentions relative to the control condition, which consisted of prior work.
Taken together, our work illustrates how distinct forms of episodic simulation differentially guide empathic responding and highlights the importance of personal distress in motivating helping.