Monday, April 02, 2007

Social exclusion causes an empathy block.

From the Editor's choice section of the March 23 issue of Science Magazine, a discussion of Twenge et al., in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. 92(1):56-66, January 2007:
Everyday experience confirms the general belief that humans are social animals; the neural pathways subserving prosocial behaviors are a subject of current research, and the evolutionary origins of these behaviors are hotly debated. Although there is evidence that social exclusion can elicit redoubled efforts to develop social connections, the consequences of exclusion are predominantly negative--feeling hurt, acting belligerently, or adopting a lone-wolf lifestyle--and Twenge et al. have begun to examine what might mediate these apparently atypical responses.

Using a variety of experimental contexts (such as the canonical spilled-pencils incident) and measures (such as donations of money or cooperation in a prisoner's dilemma game), they find that being characterized as having a high likelihood of a prosocial lifestyle with many strong relationships, such as marriage, resulted in participants helping to pick up pencils (on average, 8 out of 20 spilled) versus the performance of those labeled as being apt to lead solitary lives (less than 1 pencil picked up). As to what factors mediate the extent (or absence) of prosocial behavior, some of the likely candidates (trusting the other or having a sense of belonging) did not register, whereas empathic concern did. Combining this finding with an earlier one, which showed that social exclusion activates the neural circuits encoding pain, produces the speculation that an after-effect of rejection is an emotional numbness or an inability to mirror the affective states of others.
Here is the Twenge et al. abstract, the PDF can be downloaded HERE.
In 7 experiments, the authors manipulated social exclusion by telling people that they would end up alone later in life or that other participants had rejected them. Social exclusion caused a substantial reduction in prosocial behavior. Socially excluded people donated less money to a student fund, were unwilling to volunteer for further lab experiments, were less helpful after a mishap, and cooperated less in a mixed-motive game with another student. The results did not vary by cost to the self or by recipient of the help, and results remained significant when the experimenter was unaware of condition. The effect was mediated by feelings of empathy for another person but was not mediated by mood, state self-esteem, belongingness, trust, control, or self-awareness. The implication is that rejection temporarily interferes with emotional responses, thereby impairing the capacity for empathic understanding of others, and as a result, any inclination to help or cooperate with them is undermined.

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