25 December 2023

Virtuous versus Nonvirtuous Empathy

Empathy as Motivation versus Ability. The sharing of another’s emotions has historically been conceptualized as an important social skill, required for mutual understanding, compassion, and cooperation (e.g. de Waal, 2012; Decety et al., 2016). Within this vein, individual differences in empathy are generally viewed as differences in capacity - those who demonstrate high empathy are described as “good at” emotion sharing (see Zaki, 2014); those low in empathy include individuals with autistic (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004) or antisocial (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988) characteristics.


While seemingly intuitive, an accrual of evidence suggests that this capacity framework may be insufficient. First, considerable research has demonstrated that empathy varies reliably with features of the situational context (e.g., if the empathizer has recently experienced pain, Preis et al., 2013), and of the empathic target (e.g. if the target of empathy is an ingroup or outgroup member (Cikara et al., 2014)). Moreover, meta-analytic evidence suggests that individual differences in empathy may only manifest when subjects are aware that their empathy is being evaluated (Ickes, Gexn & Graham, 2000). These findings, among others, have led to several recent calls for reconceptualization of the construct. To this end, Keysers and Gazzola (2014) have argued for the importance of considering both the ability and propensity to empathize; Cameron, Inzicht & Cunningham (2015) have suggested that empathy may best be conceptualized as a choice; and Zaki (2014; see also Weisz & Zaki, 2018) argues for empathy as a motivation, whereby it may drive rather than generate interpersonal understanding.


What Motivates Empathy? These motivationally-based conceptualizations provide a novel, and increasingly coherent, framework for understanding when and why we would consider another’s feelings. But they also raise new questions. Most directly: what are these factors that motivate empathy? The literature on this is surprisingly one-sided: an overwhelming majority of work has linked empathy to virtuous motives, such as concern, sympathy, and helping behavior (e.g. Eisenberg & Miller, 1987; Roberts & Strayer, 1996; Hoffman, 2008; Zaki, 2014). Indeed, empathy has at times been explicitly linked to morality, virtue and human goodness (e.g. Pinker, 2011; Nussbaum, 2015). In contrast, only scant work has linked empathy to less righteous motives. Nonetheless, one could conceive of many less virtuous reasons for wanting to share the feelings of another: to influence, to manage, to mediate, to manipulate (see Bloom, 2017; Bubandt & Willersley, 2015; Briethhaupt, 2018). Empirical evidence for these notions is exceedingly thin, but not non-existent. For instance, empathy has been shown to invoke anger (Hoffman, 1998), to increase punishment intentions (Vitaglione & Barnett, 2003); to promote aggressive intentions towards outgroup members (Eisenberg, Eggum & Di Giunta, 2010; Bloom, 2016 ). Moreover, it seems reasonable to posit that empathy could facilitate successful manipulation or deceit, should one be so inclined. Indeed, in one particularly interesting study, Bagozzi et al., (2013) demonstrated increased empathy in account managers with higher Machiavellian traits. And work from our lab has demonstrated that psychopathic individuals are capable of empathizing when they are explicitly asked to do so (e.g. Shane & Groat, 2018). 


What We're Working On. Within this vein, CANdiLab researchers are engaging in several lines of research – utilizing both psychological and neuroscientific methods – to carefully evaluate the extent to which the manifestation of empathy can emerge as a result of either virtuous (e.g. for concern, compassion) or non-virtuous (e.g. for influence, manipulation) motives. One line of work has led to the development of The Motivation to Empathize scale (Carrington, Groat & Shane (2021), which is a survey instrument designed to evaluate one’s self-reported tendency to engage in empathy for either virtuous or non-virtuous reasons. A second line of work has made use of a modified Empathic Choice Task to evaluate one’s tendency to actually engage in empathy for either of these reasons. Currently we have a neuroimaging study (funded via a SSHRC Insight Development Grant) that is designed to evaluate the neural systems underlying virtuous and non-virtuous empathy. Future work is planned to evaluate the extent to which psychopathic individuals engage in empathic processing for either of these underlying motive reasons.


CANdiLab is the Clinical Affective Neuroscience Laboratory for Discovery and Innovation at Ontario Tech University