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Distress Is More Easily Recognized Than Joy

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Research on empathy suggests we can’t share joy as easily as distress.


Empathy, our capacity to register someone else’s emotional states and respond to these, is a many researched phenomenon in neuroscience. In the past years, it has become clear that empathy involves a neural circuit consisting of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the superior temporal sulcus (STS), the insula, the temporal parietal junction (TPJ) and the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) as core network regions.

Most neuroscientific studies tend to focus on negative empathy though; most of the results above were found by looking for brain areas at work when people displayed their capacity to feel with someone being in distress. In addition to this research, Perry et al. (2012) wanted to see whether the same information could be gained on ‘positive empathy’, or the capacity to share someone’s joy. Are the same regions involved? Or does positive empathy require completely other resources?

In their research, Perry et al. showed a short biography of a same-sex fictional character to 21 participants. After that, they measured the participants brain activity with fMRI while showing them sentences depicting everyday negative or positive emotional events. Some of these were ascribed to the participants (‘You lost your wallet’), while others were ascribed to the fictional character (‘Anne lost her wallet’). The participants had to rate whether the event was distressful or nice and joyful and, in addition, how strong they felt this particular emotion. It turned out that indeed, in positive empathy, the same brain regions were at work. But the emotional response in positive cases was generally much less intense then in negative situations. The researchers therefore conclude that people have a strong ability to respond to someone else’s distress, but that our natural tendency to share in the other’s joy is much weaker.

What does this conclusion tell us? Well, it surely doesn’t mean that all utterances of others sharing your happiness are useless or insincere. The brain does definitely respond to happiness of others and that response can even be quite intense. But the research does prove that this might be a mere ‘extra feature’ and that our brain was mainly hardwired to recognize suffering and distress in others. This is a useful tool for individuals living in social groups to prevent the group from immediate weakness by short-term reactions. On the long run though, positive empathy might turn out to be a useful tool as well to promote group cohesion and social alliance.

Perry, D., Hendler, T., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. (2011). Can we share the joy of others? Empathic neural responses to distress vs joy Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7 (8), 909-916 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsr073

empathy research, distress research, neuroscience happiness, sharing emotions

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