Empathy toward Strangers Triggers Oxytocin Release and Subsequent Generosity
Abstract (Via Neureconomic Studies)
Empathy is related to a variety of prosocial behaviors, but the brain mechanisms producing the experience of empathy have not been fully characterized. This study investigated whether the experience of empathy raises oxytocin levels and affects subsequent generosity toward strangers. Short video clips of an emotional scene and an unemotional scene were used as stimuli. Participants rated the emotions they experienced and then played a $40 ultimatum game to gauge their generosity. We found that empathy was associated with a 47% increase in oxytocin from baseline. We also found the empathy– oxytocin response was stronger in women than in men. Higher levels of empathy were also associated with more generous monetary offers toward strangers in the ultimatum game. Our findings provide the first evidence that oxytocin is a physiologic signature for empathy and that empathy mediates generosity.
Excerpt (Via Neuroeconomics Studies)
Humans are often aroused by the distress of others. Empathy allows us to perceive another’s affective state and motivates action if the other is perceived to be in an aversive state. The enduring interest in empathy across disciplines (as illustrated by this issue) is caused, in part, by its relationship to moral behaviors, as argued by Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics4 and Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments5 as well as other scholars. Altruism can be considered morally virtuous and has been associated with empathy. The experience of empathy has been shown to motivate prosocial behaviors, such as volunteering and donations to charities.