How do we process pain in others? Investigating behavioral and neural correlates of empathy

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Dokumentart: PhDThesis
Date: 2018-12-03
Language: English
Faculty: 7 Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät
Department: Psychologie
Advisor: Leuthold, Hartmut (Prof. Dr.)
Day of Oral Examination: 2018-11-14
DDC Classifikation: 150 - Psychology
Keywords: Einfühlung , Mitgefühl , Betroffenheit , Informationsverarbeitung , Kognition , Elektroencephalogramm , Neuropsychologie , Physiologische Psychologie
Other Keywords: Ereigniskorrelierte Potentiale
Situationelle und Dispositionelle Faktoren
Empathic Concern, Personal Distress
Motoric Processing
Situational and dispositional factors
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Experiencing pain in others is a phenomenon which we encounter regularly in everyday-life. The empathic response to pain and the involved brain regions are quite well investigated. However, it is still unclear whether and when empathic bottom-up and top-down processes influence information processing. Thus, the first research question of this dissertation thesis was how do we experience empathy and what is the time course of the underlying processes from stimulus encoding over categorization to motor execution (Study 1). A further aim was to determine the influence of the target's racial background on the empathy-related processes (Study 2). The second main strand of this work concerned the motivational consequences of empathy, because it is still an open question when empathy results in prosocial behavior. Therefore, the occurrence of empathic concern and personal distress implying an altruistic and an egoistic motivation, respectively, was investigated (Study 3). In order to address these issues, in Study 1, participants were asked to judge the painfulness of pictures displaying body parts in painful or neutral situations or to count the displayed body parts. Meanwhile, EEG and response force were recorded. Study 2 was very similar to Study 1, but the pictures displayed fair- and dark-colored hands and the counting task was replaced by a skin color judgment task. In Study 3, situational empathic concern and personal distress to pictures of persons in physical and psychological pain were measured, while participants were asked to maintain an other-focused perspective. Then, the situational measures were related to other factors like affect and the participant's disposition to experience empathic concern and personal distress. Study 1 and 2 indicated empathic automatic influences on the early encoding stage, later controlled influences on the categorization stage, whereas the effects on the motor processing stage varied. While the results of Study 1 revealed a facilitation of sensorimotor activity after the response, Study 2 indicated a facilitation of sensorimotor activity before the response and an inhibition after the response. The racial background of the target influenced early but not late processing stages. However, the influence on the late categorization stage increased with the individual implicit ingroup preferences. Motor processing stages were not influenced by the racial background. Study 3, on the other hand, indicated that situational factors like the type of the presented pain and the affect of the observer are substantial in evoking empathic concern and personal distress, whereas the influence of dispositional empathic traits is of less importance. All in all, this dissertation thesis gives important insights into the time course of automatic and controlled processes underlying empathic responses, as well as into the occurrence of empathic concern and personal distress.

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