Understanding individual variation in empathy enhancement

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

During our daily social interactions, observing others' experiences (e.g. emotion, sensation) can induce a similar experience of our own. When the experience we feel matches that of the person we are interacting with (e.g. feeling sad because you see your friend is sad), we are said to be empathising with them. Building a scientific understanding of how we empathise with others is extremely important as empathy plays a key role in supporting social relationships that are important for health and well-being.

We now know that we empathise with others in a variety of different ways. Results of recent research (including our own) have shown that our ability to mentally distinguish between and focus on the experiences of ourselves and others - our 'self-other control' - plays a key role in engaging the psychological systems that allow us to experience empathy. Moreover, we have shown that it is possible to improve self-other control using behavioural training, and that in doing so we can enhance the ability to empathise with others. These findings indicate that self-other control modulation may be a promising tool to support empathy skills, which offers the potential for developing intervention approaches in groups where improving empathy would be useful (e.g. in healthcare professions or in groups with altered empathy including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), alexithymia, psychopathy, mirror-sensory synaesthesia).

There are still many open questions regarding how our self-other control mediates our ability to empathise with others, which must be addressed before this knowledge can be used widely. The primary aims of our research focus on answering some of these questions. In particular: Can we train individuals' self-other control to enhance their performance across a range of empathy measures (including questionnaires and behavioural tests)? Will certain types of individuals be more susceptible to empathy-enhancement procedures than others? Are empathy enhancement procedures effective in clinical, compared to non-clinical, populations? How does boosting empathy affect the brain? Can we stimulate certain parts of the brain to boost empathy?

Our primary working hypothesis is that improving individuals' self-other control, using behavioural training techniques, will enhance their performance in empathy tests. Second, we believe that the target of this training may benefit certain kinds of individuals more than others, depending on their levels of psychological traits related to social ability, and whether they suffer from a clinical condition. We will integrate a range of methods to address our aims and hypotheses: individuals' empathy will be tested before and after self-other control training using a variety of established, and novel, empathy tests including psychometric, brain imaging, and brain stimulation investigations. Rather than restricting our analysis to one group, we will shift the state-of-the-art by testing people with a wide spectrum of empathic reactions including typical adults, ASD, alexithymia, and mirror-sensory synaesthesia. This will broaden the implications of our work to provide insights on the relationship between self-other control and empathy across a variety of groups. In doing so, we will help to inform our understanding of empathy, clarifying the importance of self-other control, and provide the initial building blocks for future research aspiring to develop treatments and training programs to enhance it.

Planned Impact

The present research investigates how individual characteristics - including both clinical and subclinical traits - impact on training designed to modify empathy. As such, the research makes contact with many disciplines and has the potential for translational impact. The summary below outlines who will benefit from the research and how. This is expanded upon in the Pathways to Impact statement.

Who?
People with subclinical traits characterised by atypical empathy.

How?
Within the population exists individuals scoring highly in a range of psychological traits that are associated with abnormal empathic responding, these include alexithymia, psychopathy, mirror pain synaesthesia, schizotypal, and autistic traits. Although altered empathy associated with these traits are not sever enough to be classified as a clinical condition, they can still impact on an individuals' social relationships and opportunities. The impact of this can not be underestimated since social relationships play a pivotal role in mental health and wellbeing (e.g. reduced social relationships are one of the largest predictors of mortality rates in humans - Holt-Lunstad et al. 2010. PLoS Medicine). Our research will help raise awareness (among those affected and the general population) of how these individual differences are associated with altered empathy, and offer avenues for the development of tools to support individually tailored empathy training in the future. This will be achieved through stakeholder events, engagement with the public, and interaction with the media.

Who?
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and professionals working with them.

How?
Highlighting that the problems in empathy found in ASD may be linked to specific mechanisms, and that they can potentially be targeted for intervention using behavioural and neurologically informed training techniques will have implications for those with ASD and for those working to support them. This will be acheieved through stakeholder events, engagement with the public, and interaction with the media.

Who?
The general public and wider stakeholders

How?
The general public, media, and policy makers have an interest in empathy and how it shapes both our social interactions and society at large. The notion that different people can empathise with others in different ways, and that this could be modified, has significant implications for policy (e.g. how we teach and treat people who differ; how we train professions where empathy is important), for art and culture (e.g. PI's work has led to symposia at Tate Modern), and for science. This will be achieved via public science events, interactions with stakeholders, use of social media, and interaction with the media.

Who?
Academic beneficiaries. These will consist of researchers from a variety of areas including: social neuroscience and social cognition; clinical psychology; and individual differences. In a broader context the findings will be of interest to researchers working with the methods to be employed including non-invasive brain stimulation, continuous self-report measures, and neuroimaging. These beneficiaries are distributed globally.

How?
The research will increase the scientific knowledge base in these areas, by using cutting-edge methodologies to directly test recent theoretical predictions regarding mechanisms involved in empathy (e.g. Bird & Viding, 2014; Lamm et al., 2016; Ward & Banissy, 2015), and the degree to which it can be moderated. The research will lay the foundations for the potential application of this knowledge to support atypical groups, and in this regard is timely given funding priorities related to health and wellbeing. It will also build capacity for future collaborations among the investigators/institutions (Goldsmiths, Oxford, Queen's) as well as training an early-career RF. This will be achieved through dissemination in leading journals, conferences, and social media outlets.

Publications

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Bowling NC (2019) Atypical bodily self-awareness in vicarious pain responders. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

 
Description This project has recently started (August 2018), but we have already been involved in a variety of activities with international reach that have increased awareness of our work on empathy and on individual differences in empathy across groups of interest within the project. This has been achieved through talks at public symposium, involvement in major public engagement festivals, international media engagement, and direct engagement with school groups.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Developing and assessing the utility of mobile applications to modulate social cognition
Amount £33,872 (GBP)
Funding ID SIF\R1\181002 
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2019
 
Description BBC Breakfast News Coverage 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A piece about our research was filmed at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. This increased public knowledge of the research and prompted volunteers to contact us and participate in research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description BBC Radio 4 - Seriously Programme on Empathy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Raised awareness of research and knowledge exchange
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description BBC Radio 4 All in the Mind; BBC Local Radio; BBC News; BBC Breakfast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviews given to discuss ongoing research projects. This increased public knowledge of the research and prompted volunteers to contact us and participate in research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description BBC Radio Coverage: Radio 4 Today Programme, World Service, Local radio stations 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviews given to discuss ongoing research projects. This increased public knowledge of the research and prompted volunteers to contact us and participate in research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Creative Brain (University of Oxford) Public Science Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Increased interest in subject area and requests for research participation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description ESRC Festival of Social Science event on Empathy 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Raised awareness of research, knowledge exchange, and requests for further information.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Participation in an activity, workshop or similar - Main Summer Exhibition and Talk presented at Wellcome Trust Collection, London, UK (Summer 2018) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Raised awareness about research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition: Do You Feel Me? 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We organised a stand focused on synaesthesia and empathy for the 2019 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. This was a high-profile public event which reached over 12,000 visitors and generated engagement from synaesthetes, future research participants and the media.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description School Visit (Feltham, England) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Presented talk "The Science of Emotion" to GCSE and A-level students at the Rivers Academy, Feltham, England, with the aim of providing an accessible introduction to the science of emotion and empathy. The audience consisted of approximately 100-200 students. The talk sparked questions and discucssion afterwards, with several students expressing an interest in studying psychology further during their academic career.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Vice article - Super-Empaths Are Real, Says Science 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Raised awareness of research, knowledge exchange, and requests for further information.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Workshop and discussion panel (London, England) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Took part in a workshop and discussion panel (as a panel expert in the application of neuro-stimulation) for a public outreach event organised by, and hosted within, University of the Arts London: Central Saint Martins. The event title was: "Neuroscience Meets Art Experience Day: Mind Generated Images". 11-50 members of the general public attended the event, which consisted of a panel discussion, Q&A session with the audience, and a neuro-stimulation demo session (which included participation by the general public). The event focused on providing an accessible introduction to the science of neuro-stimulation techniques, both present and potential future applications. The audience reported increased interest in the subject area and requested contact details to enquire about participating in related research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019