Vicarious fear learning depends on empathic appraisals and trait empathy

A Olsson, K McMahon, G Papenberg, J Zaki, N Bolger, K N Ochsner: Vicarious fear learning depends on empathic appraisals and trait empathy. In: Psychological Science, 27 (1), pp. 25-33, 2016, (PMID: 26637357).


Empathy and vicarious learning of fear are increasingly understood as separate phenomena, but the interaction between the two remains poorly understood. We investigated how social (vicarious) fear learning is affected by empathic appraisals by asking participants to either enhance or decrease their empathic responses to another individual (the demonstrator), who received electric shocks paired with a predictive conditioned stimulus. A third group of participants received no appraisal instructions and responded naturally to the demonstrator. During a later test, participants who had enhanced their empathy evinced the strongest vicarious fear learning as measured by skin conductance responses to the conditioned stimulus in the absence of the demonstrator. Moreover, this effect was augmented in observers high in trait empathy. Our results suggest that a demonstrator’s expression can serve as a “social” unconditioned stimulus (US), similar to a personally experienced US in Pavlovian fear conditioning, and that learning from a social US depends on both empathic appraisals and the observers’ stable traits.