The effects of empathy on self-related thoughts, feelings, and actions

Empathy - an other-oriented emotional reaction including feelings of compassion, sympathy, and concern – is an important motivator of helping, and this even in situations, in which the act of helping entails high personal costs for the helper. While a large body of research has documented the positive effect of empathy on helping, the mechanisms underlying this effect have been rather neglected so far. The present research project seeks to address this gap in the literature. Specifically, it is argued that feeling empathy for a needy other leads to a suppression of self-related thoughts, feelings, and actions. This, in turn, should lead to helping behaviour that closely responds to the other’s specific needs (rather than to the helper’s own needs). Based on the assumption that empathic feelings inhibit self-related thoughts and feelings, a first line of research investigates whether, and to what extent, feelings of empathy affect peoples’ reactions to aversive stimuli (e.g., disgust-eliciting stimuli). A second line of research focuses on the influence of a helper’s empathic feelings on the perceived costs of helping. The specific predictions are tested in laboratory experiments and field studies, and in interpersonal as well as in intergroup contexts.