Empathy Faces Are For Show

Our subconsciouses are like the rest of us; adeptly ‘altruistic’ when it benefits them, such as when watched. For an example of how well designed we are in this regard consider the automatic empathic expression of pain we make upon seeing someone hurt. When we aren’t being watched, feeling other people’s pain goes out the window:

A 2-part experiment with 50 university students tested the hypothesis that motor mimicry is instead an interpersonal event, a nonverbal communication intended to be seen by the other….The victim of an apparently painful injury was either increasingly or decreasingly available for eye contact with the observer. Microanalysis showed that the pattern and timing of the observer’s motor mimicry were significantly affected by the visual availability of the victim.

That is Katja Grace, who now has a blog worth watching.

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  • q

    you can feel and share someone else’s emotions, but not their pain. there is no pain ’empathy’.

  • I need that wiring. My empathy triggers for others’ embarrassment and trauma too much to watch, say, sitcoms. (But horror films fail to activate it.)

  • When we aren’t being watched, feeling other people’s pain goes out the window

    Seems way exaggerated (though that was Katya, not you, right?) I choke up on seeing depictions of death and grieving, even if I’m alone in a room. I have no idea how my minor facial expressions vary, but empathy as a whole certainly doesn’t drop to zero!

  • jonathan

    I understand you try to be provocative, but how do you get from a to b here? The paper’s summary also includes this line, which was left out:

    “a parallel process model is proposed in which the eliciting stimulus may set off both internal reactions and communicative responses, and it is the communicative situation that determines the visable behavior.”

    That says nothing about what a person feels but about the mechanism of communication in a social situation. When you see the injured person, you make faces that communicate a socially appropriate response. The idea is that this response mechanism is tied to sight rather than occurring all the time and that says nothing about empathy or actual concern.

    • The authors say, “..overt motor mimicry is best explained as a communicative act, controlled by interpersonal variables and independent of any intrapersonal processes that may accompany it.” Internally felt emotion is still compatible of course, as long as it’s independent of what we thought was the evidence for it. So they propose it might exist in parallel, but as far as I can tell they don’t offer evidence of that (the original page seems to be down, so it’s hard for me to make certain).

      One reason the authors think it’s implausible that there is a base level of expression linked to true emotion and an exaggeration due to observation is that the timing is so short and the delays are wrong for something that complex to be occurring.

      Notice that the fact that we feel strong empathy at times, alone or in public, does not mean that it is happens as an automatic process whenever we engage with others, as subconscious motor mimicry had been thought to imply. It’s that that I was suggesting is false.

  • Yes, Katja may exaggerate about empathy going away; what is clearest is that facial expressions of empathy go away.

    • Just like people laugh out loud much, much more when watching funny YouTube vids together with other people.

  • Matt

    I think empathy is more based on locality, so I would like to know the relationship between the subjects in the experiment.

    If you live in a small town and you trip and fall walking down the sidewalk, a stranger passing by is very likely to help you and ask if you’re all right. Not so much on the streets of New York. In a small town, a stranger is someone you are likely to see again. In New York almost all strangers are close to irrelevent to you.

    I’m just guessing, but I bet Americans gave more to the victims in Katrina than they did to the victims of the tsunami is Southern Asia.

    I also think that we are conditioned to believe that we should feel empathy, so we think that is what is expected of us. But change the conditions and see what happens. I’ve seen a 250 pound woman roll over her own baby on America’s Funniest Home Videos and the audience started cracking up. How would the facial expressions change if you saw someone get hurt with happy music playing in the background?

  • Grant

    When watching movies alone I notice I still feel some empathy for the characters (say, when they are killed horribly), even if I don’t show it as I would when watching the movie with others.