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Responsibility and the sense of agency enhance empathy for pain

Abstract : Being held responsible for our actions strongly determines our moral judgements and decisions. This study examined whether responsibility also influences our affective reaction to others’ emotions. We conducted two experiments in order to assess the effect of responsibility and of a sense of agency (the conscious feeling of controlling an action) on the empathic response to pain. In both experiments, participants were presented with video clips showing an actor’s facial expression of pain of varying intensity. The empathic response was assessed with behavioural (pain intensity estimation from facial expressions and unpleasantness for the observer ratings) and electrophysiological measures (facial electromyography). Experiment 1 showed enhanced empathic response (increased unpleasantness for the observer and facial electromyography responses) as participants’ degree of responsibility for the actor’s pain increased. This effect was mainly accounted for by the decisional component of responsibility (compared with the execution component). In addition, experiment 2 found that participants’ unpleasantness rating also increased when they had a sense of agency over the pain, while controlling for decision and execution processes. The findings suggest that increased empathy induced by responsibility and a sense of agency may play a role in regulating our moral conduct.
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Evelyne Lepron, Mickael Causse, Chloé Farrer. Responsibility and the sense of agency enhance empathy for pain. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Royal Society, The, 2014, vol. 282 (n° 1799), pp. 20142288-20142288. ⟨10.1098/rspb.2014.2288⟩. ⟨hal-01542388⟩

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