The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2015

"Can You Feel What I Feel? Outside Factors May Affect Empathy" by Emily Lipschultz


“Developing and maintaining empathy for others, even in the face of strong dislike or disagreement, is one of society’s most pressing concerns,” the psychologist Tony Hacker once declared.[1] Mutual understanding and concern is behind some of the most beautiful things that people do-- things like tending the sick, aiding the poor, and comforting the mourning. A lack of empathy can allow people to commit unimaginable atrocities, while its presence is the impetus that strengthens social bonds and motivates humans to altruism. Recent research by scientists at the University of Vienna and Beijing Normal University, however, indicates that certain situations may affect the degree to which empathy is experienced. 

In a study released last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers in Austria performed an experiment in which participants were given placebo painkiller tablets before receiving a small shock, and then observing the administration of a shock to another individual.[2] These subjects, as expected, rated their own personal pain upon being shocked as significantly lower than a control group of individuals who received no tablet. However, the participants who had taken the placebo “painkiller” also rated the pain of the others that they were observing as significantly less severe than the control group did. These effects (both the reduction of personal pain and the reduction in empathic response to the pain of others)  were both reduced when subjects were also administered Naldextrone. Naldextrone is often used in order to help people overcome addiction to pain medications because it blocks the the opioid pathway which normally gives opiates their effectiveness. Naldextrone works to block the effects of real opioid painkillers as well as the effects of placebo ones. This is significant because it strongly indicates that there may be a relationship between the way real pain is experienced within the brain and the experience of empathy. When people experience empathy, they may be actually feeling the pain of others in a very real sense-- that is to say, the brain may attempt to internally emulate the experiences of others, resulting in an understanding of observed pain that is based in actual shared experience. 

This is relevant because more people are taking prescription medications to treat pain now than ever before. According to the United States Center for Disease Control, the amount of prescription painkillers prescribed and sold in the US has almost quadrupled in the last 16 years.[3] In addition to those being prescribed painkillers, the CDC reports that in 2013, nearly 2 million Americans were abusing these medications. When such a significant portion of the population is using opioid pathway stimulating medications in high quantities, this means that a large subgroup of society could be living day-to-day with a depressed capacity for empathy. 

Effects to the opioid pathways of the brain may be able to increase or lessen the power of the experience of empathy, but these effects are not the only modulators of empathy. A study published recently in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience indicates that social status may also play a role in empathy.[4] Chinese scientists did an experiment in which they ranked participants in an artificial social hierarchy based on proficiency at an arbitrary skill. Once the hierarchy was established, subjects underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to monitor brain activity while watching videos of other participants (of inferior or superior rank in the system) receiving painful stimuli. The results of the fMRI showed that subjects’ brains showed more activity in areas associated with empathy when the individual being hurt was ranked inferior to the subject than when the individual was ranked superior. This indicated that empathy, at the neural level, may be biased toward those the concerned individual believes they are socially superior to. This seems very counterintuitive to the stereotype that the rich lack empathy toward the poor, and warrants further research. Perhaps there are limits on this effect, or perhaps the stereotype of the aloof rich may have less truth to it than previously imagined. 

In a highly stratified society, differences in social status could impact who certain individuals feel empathetic toward, and to what degree. It is possible that, within a workplace, individuals may be more capable of empathy when it is directed toward those who work under them than those who have authority over them. Information like this could affect how workplaces and communities are best structured in order to lead to the most supportive environment possible. 

Traditionally, empathy is seen as a static trait. Empathy is often described as if it were an immovable part of a person’s personality-- people are described as more or less empathetic in a very concrete way, one that seems to imply that empathy is independent of outside considerations. Recent research, though, paints a broader picture of the experience of empathy. Empathy may be much more reliant on things like medication or social status than has ever been suspected in the past. Knowing what factors influence the way that or the degree to which empathy is experienced in the face of observed trauma could be critical to the mission of creating and protecting a cohesive human society.


[1] Hacker, T. (2013) Building empathy builds society. In The Seattle Times. Retrieved from: 
[2] Rütgen, M., Seidel, E., Silani, G.,, Riecankský, I., Hummer, A., Windischberger, C., Petrovic, P., Lamm, C. (2015) Placebo analgesia and its opioidergic regulation suggest that empathy for pain is grounded in self pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(41). Retrieved from:
[3] Injury Prevention & Control: Prescription Drug Overdose. (2015) In Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from:
[4] Feng, C., Feng, X., Wang, L., Tian, T., Li, Z., Luo, Y. (2015). Social hierarchy modulates neural responses of empathy for pain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(11). Retrieved from:

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