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The role of physiological arousal for self-reported emotional empathy

  • Christian E. Deuter
    Correspondence
    Corresponding author at: Charité University Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Hindenburgdamm 30, 12203 Berlin, Germany.
    Affiliations
    Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, corporate member of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Berlin Institute of Health, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
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  • Jan Nowacki
    Affiliations
    Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, corporate member of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Berlin Institute of Health, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
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  • Katja Wingenfeld
    Affiliations
    Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, corporate member of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Berlin Institute of Health, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
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  • Linn K. Kuehl
    Affiliations
    Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, corporate member of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Berlin Institute of Health, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
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  • Johannes B. Finke
    Affiliations
    University of Trier, Institute of Psychobiology, Department of Clinical Psychophysiology
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  • Isabel Dziobek
    Affiliations
    Humboldt-Universität Berlin, Institute of Psychology

    Berlin School of Mind and Brain
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  • Christian Otte
    Affiliations
    Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, corporate member of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Berlin Institute of Health, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
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      Abstract

      The capacity to represent the emotional and mental states of others is referred to by the concept of empathy. Empathy further differentiates into an emotional and a cognitive subcomponent, which in turn is known to require a tacit perspective-taking process. However, whether the empathizer by himself needs to enter an affective state as a necessary precondition for emotional empathy remains a matter of debate. If empathy would require a vicarious emotional reaction, specific physiological markers of affective responding should be detectable in the empathizing person.
      In the present study, we investigated the relationship between self-reported empathy and psychophysiological responses in young, healthy participants. We assessed emotional and cognitive empathy with the Multifaceted Empathy Test on the one hand and the corresponding heart rate and skin conductance responses (SCR), affective startle modulation and heart rate variability on the other.
      We found a negative relationship between SCR and self-reported emotional empathy: higher SCR to emotional stimuli predicted lower empathy ratings. We conclude that physiological arousal is not necessary and might even diminish empathy for others.

      Keywords

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