The role of physiological arousal for self-reported emotional empathy

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

    Berlin School of Mind and Brain
    Search for articles by this author
  • Christian Otte
    Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, corporate member of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Berlin Institute of Health, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
    Search for articles by this author


      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.


      To read this article in full you will need to make a payment

      Purchase one-time access:

      Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
      One-time access price info
      • For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
      • For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'


      Subscribe to Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical
      Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
      Already an online subscriber? Sign in
      Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect


        • Alpers G.W.
        • Adolph D.
        • Pauli P.
        Emotional scenes and facial expressions elicit different psychophysiological responses.
        Int. J. Psychophysiol. 2011; 80: 173-181
        • Anderson N.E.
        • Kiehl K.A.
        Psychopathy: developmental perspectives and their implications for treatment.
        Restor. Neurol. Neurosci. 2014; 32: 103-117
        • Anokhin A.P.
        • Golosheykin S.
        Startle modulation by affective faces.
        Biol. Psychol. 2010; 83: 37-40
        • Benedek M.
        • Kaernbach C.
        A continuous measure of phasic electrodermal activity.
        J. Neurosci. Methods. 2010; 190: 80-91
        • Ben-Shakhar G.
        Standardization within individuals: a simple method to neutralize individual differences in skin conductance.
        Psychophysiology. 1985; 22: 292-299
        • Blair R.J.
        Fine cuts of empathy and the amygdala: dissociable deficits in psychopathy and autism.
        Q. J. Exp. Psychol. (Hove). 2008; 61: 157-170
        • Blumenthal T.D.
        • Cuthbert B.N.
        • Filion D.L.
        • Hackley S.
        • Lipp O.V.
        • van Boxtel A.
        Committee report: guidelines for human startle eyeblink electromyographic studies.
        Psychophysiology. 2005; 42: 1-15
        • van Boxtel A.
        • Boelhouwer A.J.
        • Bos A.R.
        Optimal EMG signal bandwidth and interelectrode distance for the recording of acoustic, electrocutaneous, and photic blink reflexes.
        Psychophysiology. 1998; 35: 690-697
      1. Bradley, M. M., Cuthbert, B. N., & Lang, P. J. (1999) Affect and the startle reflex. Startle Modification: Implications for Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, and Clinical Science. Placeholder TextPlaceholder Text157-183.

        • Burnham K.P.
        • Anderson D.R.
        Model Selection and Multimodel Inference: A Practical Information-Theoretic Approach.
        Springer Science & Business Media, 2003
        • Burnham K.P.
        • Anderson D.R.
        Multimodel inference: understanding AIC and BIC in model selection.
        Sociol. Methods Res. 2004; 33: 261-304
        • Chauhan B.
        • Mathias C.J.
        • Critchley H.D.
        Autonomic contributions to empathy: evidence from patients with primary autonomic failure.
        Auton. Neurosci. 2008; 140: 96-100
        • Critchley H.D.
        • Mathias C.J.
        • Dolan R.J.
        Neuroanatomical basis for first- and second-order representations of bodily states.
        Nat. Neurosci. 2001; 4: 207-212
        • Cuff B.M.
        • Brown S.J.
        • Taylor L.
        • Howat D.J.
        Empathy: a review of the concept.
        Emot. Rev. 2016; 8: 144-153
        • Cuthbert B.N.
        • Bradley M.M.
        • Lang P.J.
        Probing picture perception: activation and emotion.
        Psychophysiology. 1996; 33: 103-111
        • Dawson M.E.
        • Schell A.M.
        • Filion D.L.
        The electrodermal system.
        in: Cacioppo J.T. Tassinary L.G. Berntson G.G. Handbook of Psychophysiology. 2. 2007: 200-223
        • Decety J.
        • Lamm C.
        Human empathy through the lens of social neuroscience.
        ScientificWorldJournal. 2006; 6: 1146-1163
        • Decety J.
        • Bartal I.B.
        • Uzefovsky F.
        • Knafo-Noam A.
        Empathy as a driver of prosocial behaviour: highly conserved neurobehavioural mechanisms across species.
        Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. Ser. B Biol. Sci. 2016; 371: 20150077
        • Deuter C.E.
        • Best D.
        • Kuehl L.K.
        • Neumann R.
        • Schachinger H.
        Effects of approach-avoidance related motor behaviour on the startle response during emotional picture processing.
        Biol. Psychol. 2014; 103C: 292-296
        • Duesenberg M.
        • Weber J.
        • Schulze L.
        • Schaeuffele C.
        • Roepke S.
        • Hellmann-Regen J.
        • Wingenfeld K.
        Does cortisol modulate emotion recognition and empathy?.
        Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016; 66: 221-227
        • Dziobek I.
        • Rogers K.
        • Fleck S.
        • Bahnemann M.
        • Heekeren H.R.
        • Wolf O.T.
        • Convit A.
        Dissociation of cognitive and emotional empathy in adults with Asperger syndrome using the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET).
        J. Autism Dev. Disord. 2008; 38: 464-473
        • Edele A.
        • Dziobek I.
        • Keller M.
        Explaining altruistic sharing in the dictator game: the role of affective empathy, cognitive empathy, and justice sensitivity.
        Learn. Individ. Differ. 2013; 24: 96-102
        • Eisenberg N.
        • Fabes R.A.
        Empathy: conceptualization, measurement, and relation to prosocial behavior.
        Motiv. Emot. 1990; 14: 131-149
        • Ellwanger J.
        • Geyer M.A.
        • Braff D.L.
        The relationship of age to prepulse inhibition and habituation of the acoustic startle response.
        Biol. Psychol. 2003; 62: 175-195
        • Gaebler M.
        • Daniels J.K.
        • Lamke J.P.
        • Fydrich T.
        • Walter H.
        Heart rate variability and its neural correlates during emotional face processing in social anxiety disorder.
        Biol. Psychol. 2013; 94: 319-330
        • Gallagher S.
        Empathy, simulation, and narrative.
        Sci. Context. 2012; 25: 355-381
        • Gallagher S.
        In defense of phenomenological approaches to social cognition: interacting with the critics.
        Rev. Philos. Psychol. 2012; 3: 187-212
        • Gangopadhyay N.
        Introduction: embodiment and empathy, current debates in social cognition.
        Topoi. 2014; 33: 117-127
        • Grimm S.
        • Wirth K.
        • Fan Y.
        • Weigand A.
        • Gartner M.
        • Feeser M.
        • Aust S.
        The interaction of corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor gene and early life stress on emotional empathy.
        Behav. Brain Res. 2017; 329: 180-185
        • Heims H.C.
        • Critchley H.D.
        • Martin N.H.
        • Jager H.R.
        • Mathias C.J.
        • Cipolotti L.
        Cognitive functioning in orthostatic hypotension due to pure autonomic failure.
        Clin. Auton. Res. 2006; 16: 113-120
        • Henrich J.
        • Heine S.J.
        • Norenzayan A.
        The weirdest people in the world?.
        Behav. Brain Sci. 2010; 33 (discussion 83–135): 61-83
        • Hess U.
        • Sabourin G.
        • Kleck R.E.
        Postauricular and eyeblink startle responses to facial expressions.
        Psychophysiology. 2007; 44: 431-435
        • Jacob P.
        The direct-perception model of empathy: a critique.
        Rev. Philos. Psychol. 2011; 2: 519
        • Klein K.J.
        • Hodges S.D.
        Gender differences, motivation, and empathic accuracy: when it pays to understand.
        Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 2001; 27: 720-730
        • Kok F.M.
        • Groen Y.
        • Becke M.
        • Fuermaier A.B.
        • Tucha O.
        Self-reported empathy in adult women with autism spectrum disorders — a systematic mini review.
        PLoS One. 2016; 11e0151568
        • Lang P.J.
        Emotion's response patterns: the brain and the autonomic nervous system.
        Emot. Rev. 2014; 6: 93-99
        • Lang P.J.
        • Greenwald M.K.
        • Bradley M.M.
        • Hamm A.O.
        Looking at pictures: affective, facial, visceral, and behavioral reactions.
        Psychophysiology. 1993; 30: 261-273
        • Lang P.J.
        • Bradley M.M.
        • Cuthbert B.N.
        International Affective Picture System (IAPS): Technical Manual and Affective Ratings.
        The Center for Research in Psychophysiology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL1999
        • Ludewig K.
        • Ludewig S.
        • Seitz A.
        • Obrist M.
        • Geyer M.A.
        • Vollenweider F.X.
        The acoustic startle reflex and its modulation: effects of age and gender in humans.
        Biol. Psychol. 2003; 63: 311-323
        • Mathersul D.
        • McDonald S.
        • Rushby J.A.
        Autonomic arousal explains social cognitive abilities in high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder.
        Int. J. Psychophysiol. 2013; 89: 475-482
        • McCulloch C.E.
        • Neuhaus J.M.
        Generalized Linear Mixed Models.
        • Mehrabian A.
        • Epstein N.
        A measure of emotional empathy.
        J. Pers. 1972; 40: 525-543
        • Michael J.
        Towards a consensus about the role of empathy in interpersonal understanding.
        Topoi. 2014; 33: 157-172
        • Neiss R.
        Reconceptualizing arousal: psychobiological states in motor performance.
        Psychol. Bull. 1988; 103: 345-366
        • Nowacki J.
        • Heekeren H.R.
        • Deuter C.E.
        • Joerißen J.D.
        • Schröder A.
        • Otte C.
        • Wingenfeld K.
        Decision Making Under Risk in Response to Psychophysiological Stress.
        2017 (Unpublished manuscript)
        • Park G.
        • Thayer J.F.
        From the heart to the mind: cardiac vagal tone modulates top-down and bottom-up visual perception and attention to emotional stimuli.
        Front. Psychol. 2014; 5: 278
        • Piber D.
        • Nowacki J.
        • Mueller S.C.
        • Wingenfeld K.
        • Otte C.
        Sex effects on spatial learning but not on spatial memory retrieval in healthy young adults.
        Behav. Brain Res. 2018; 336: 44-50
        • Pokorny T.
        • Preller K.H.
        • Kometer M.
        • Dziobek I.
        • Vollenweider F.X.
        Effect of psilocybin on empathy and moral decision-making.
        Int. J. Neuropsychopharmacol. 2017;
        • Preller K.H.
        • Hulka L.M.
        • Vonmoos M.
        • Jenni D.
        • Baumgartner M.R.
        • Seifritz E.
        • Quednow B.B.
        Impaired emotional empathy and related social network deficits in cocaine users.
        Addict. Biol. 2014; 19: 452-466
        • Quintana D.S.
        • Guastella A.J.
        • Outhred T.
        • Hickie I.B.
        • Kemp A.H.
        Heart rate variability is associated with emotion recognition: direct evidence for a relationship between the autonomic nervous system and social cognition.
        Int. J. Psychophysiol. 2012; 86: 168-172
        • Salovey P.
        Mood-induced self-focused attention.
        J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 1992; 62: 699-707
        • Shaffer F.
        • McCraty R.
        • Zerr C.L.
        A healthy heart is not a metronome: an integrative review of the heart's anatomy and heart rate variability.
        Front. Psychol. 2014; 5: 1040
        • Shamay-Tsoory S.G.
        • Aharon-Peretz J.
        Dissociable prefrontal networks for cognitive and affective theory of mind: a lesion study.
        Neuropsychologia. 2007; 45: 3054-3067
        • Smith J.
        What is empathy for?.
        Synthese. 2017; 194: 709-722
        • Svenaeus F.
        The phenomenology of empathy: a Steinian emotional account.
        Phenomenol. Cogn. Sci. 2016; 15: 227-245
        • Tarvainen M.P.
        • Niskanen J.P.
        • Lipponen J.A.
        • Ranta-Aho P.O.
        • Karjalainen P.A.
        Kubios HRV—heart rate variability analysis software.
        Comput. Methods Prog. Biomed. 2014; 113: 210-220
        • Venables P.H.
        • Mitchell D.A.
        The effects of age, sex and time of testing on skin conductance activity.
        Biol. Psychol. 1996; 43: 87-101
        • de Vignemont F.
        • Singer T.
        The empathic brain: how, when and why?.
        Trends Cogn. Sci. 2006; 10: 435-441
        • de Waal F.B.M.
        • Preston S.D.
        Mammalian empathy: behavioural manifestations and neural basis.
        Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 2017; 18: 498-509
        • Walsh P.J.
        Empathy, embodiment, and the unity of expression.
        Topoi. 2014; 33: 215-226
        • Walter H.
        Social cognitive neuroscience of empathy: concepts, circuits, and genes.
        Emot. Rev. 2012; 4: 9-17
        • Ward E.J.
        A review and comparison of four commonly used Bayesian and maximum likelihood model selection tools.
        Ecol. Model. 2008; 211: 1-10
        • Wegner D.M.
        • Giuliano T.
        Arousal-induced attention to self.
        J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 1980; 38: 719
        • Wingenfeld K.
        • Kuehl L.K.
        • Janke K.
        • Hinkelmann K.
        • Dziobek I.
        • Fleischer J.
        • Roepke S.
        Enhanced emotional empathy after mineralocorticoid receptor stimulation in women with borderline personality disorder and healthy women.
        Neuropsychopharmacology. 2014; 39: 1799-1804
        • Wingenfeld K.
        • Kuehl L.K.
        • Dziobek I.
        • Roepke S.
        • Otte C.
        • Hinkelmann K.
        Effects of mineralocorticoid receptor blockade on empathy in patients with major depressive disorder.
        Cogn. Affect. Behav. Neurosci. 2016; 16: 902-910
        • Zahavi D.
        Simulation, projection and empathy.
        Conscious. Cogn. 2008; 17: 514-522
        • Zahavi D.
        Empathy and other-directed intentionality.
        Topoi. 2014; 33: 129-142
        • Zahavi D.
        • Overgaard S.
        Empathy without isomorphism: a phenomenological account.
        in: Decety J. Empathy: From Bench to Bedside. MIT Press, 2012: 3-20
        • Zahavi D.
        • Rochat P.
        Empathy not equal sharing: perspectives from phenomenology and developmental psychology.
        Conscious. Cogn. 2015; 36: 543-553