What disrupts empathy?
In the study by the Max Planck Institute, participants were paired up, and each person was shown an image that was either pleasant or unpleasant. At the same time, they were each given something equally pleasant or unpleasant to touch, such as soft fur or slime. (The tactile stimuli ensured that participants’ thoughts wouldn’t trump their emotions in subsequent decision-making.)
The outcome was striking: When experiencing different stimuli, the participants were more likely to project their feelings and circumstances onto the other person, rather than the other way around, confirming that empathy relies on being in a neutral or shared state.
“Up to now, the social neuroscience models have assumed that we mainly draw on our own emotions as a reference for empathy. This only works, however, if we are in a neutral state or the same state as our counterpart—otherwise, the brain must counteract and correct,” stated Tania Singer, who headed the research team.