Multidetermined concern: Roles for affective and cognitive processes in empathy and altruism
Altruistic responding to distress relies on a series of empathic processes. These include perception of distress and vulnerability, affective resonance with this distress, and motivation to do something to improve the distressed individual’s well-being. Each of these components is independently critical for the production of effective prosocial helping, and failure at any step in this empathic process model will limit helping. Together, these processes are thought to result in a multidetermined concern, in which both bottom-up affective and top-down cognitive processes contribute to empathic and altruistic responding. How each of these processes contributes to particularly costly altruistic behavior remains to be determined. In three studies, the roles of affective and cognitive mechanisms at three steps in an empathic process model were tested with regard to their role in promoting costly altruism. Across all studies, empathic responding and prosocial behavior were examined in a population of extraordinary altruists – non-directed kidney donors. In Study 1, the role of the neural network supporting mammalian offspring care was examined in caring responding to cues of distress and vulnerability in altruists and matched controls. Results reveal that amygdala-mediated distress sensitivity and amygdala connectivity with the periaqueductal gray set altruists apart. In Study 2, neural resonance across the first-hand experience of pain and the observation of pain in a stranger, including both group-level overlap and individual-level correspondence in neural processing, was examined in altruists and controls. Altruists were found to have greater neural resonance supported by both group-level and individual-level correspondence in left anterior insula. In Study 3, the role of empathic emotion regulation in promoting prosocial motivation and costly donation behavior was tested, first in a community sample and then in altruists and controls. While instructed reappraisal was found to affect donation behavior in Study 3a, especially for those high in trait reappraisal, effects of reappraisal in Study 3b were limited with regard to donation outcomes, suggesting that altruists and controls may instead differ in interacting effects of negative and positive affect on donation behavior across conditions. Implications for these interdependent processes in promoting altruism, and remaining questions, are discussed.
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