Regulating mirroring of emotions a social-specific mechanism?

Sophie Sowden, Divyush Khemka, Caroline Catmur

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There is evidence that humans mirror others’ emotional responses: brain responses to observed and experienced emotion overlap, and reaction time costs of observing others’ pain suggest that others’ emotional states interfere with our own. Such emotional mirroring requires regulation to prevent personal distress. However, currently it is unclear whether this “empathic interference effect” is uniquely social, arising only from the observation of human actors, or also from the observation of non-biological objects in “painful” states. Moreover, the degree to which this interference relates to individual differences in self-reported levels of empathy is yet to be revealed. We introduce a modified pain observation task, measuring empathic interference effects induced by observation of painful states applied to both biological and non-biological stimuli. An initial validation study (N = 50) confirmed that painful states applied to biological stimuli were rated explicitly as more painful than non-painful states applied to biological stimuli, and also than both painful and non-painful states applied to non-biological stimuli. Subsequently, across two independent discovery (N = 83) and replication (N = 80) samples, the task elicited slowing of response times during the observation of painful states when compared to non-painful states, but the magnitude of this effect did not differ between biological and non-biological stimuli. Little evidence was found for reliable relationships between empathic interference and self-reported empathy. Caution should therefore be taken in using the current task to pursue an individual differences approach to empathic interference, but the task shows promise for investigating the specificity of the mechanism involved in regulating emotional mirroring.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 8 Oct 2021


  • Empathy for pain
  • personal distress
  • self-other control
  • emotional mirroring
  • empathic interference

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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