Existing work linking empathy with social behavior has focused overwhelmingly on empathy for the negative emotions of others. But recent research suggests that feeling along with others’ negative emotions is a capacity distinct from feeling along with others’ positive emotions.
In Study 1, we demonstrate the separability of positive and negative empathy by showing that although both relate to some of the same foundational empathic processes, each has a number of distinct correlates.
In Study 2 we take an experimental approach and show that encouraging participants to empathize with the positive versus negative emotions of a suffering yet hopeful social group results in distinct patterns of vicarious emotion.
Finally, Study 3 shows that although both positive empathy and negative empathy are associated to a similar degree with helping behavior directed toward others in need, positive—but not negative—empathy is related to “everyday” prosocial behaviors aimed specifically at increasing others’ positive emotions (e.g., random acts of kindness)
. Together, these results provide what to our knowledge is the first demonstration of the causal potency of positive and negative empathy as well as the first evidence that positive and negative empathy relate to different types of social behaviors.