University of Pennsylvania
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When Feeling and Doing Diverge:
Neural and Physiological Correlates of the Empathy-Altruism Divide

Principal Investigators:

Stephanie D. Preston, Ph.D., Assistant professor, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan
Tony W. Buchanan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, St. Louis University

From Enlightenment philosophy to modern neuroscience, multiple mechanisms have been identified for our intersubjective ability to feel another's pain. Physiological resonance between individuals has been demonstrated in heart rate, facial muscle activity, skin conductance, neural activity and pupil dilation. Yet, despite this shared reactivity, we often do not help those in need and sometimes even cause their distress. This divide between feeling and acting exists not only in our behavior, but also in our neuroscientific research, which almost completely segregates mechanisms of empathy and altruism (citing different articles, using different paradigms, and emphasizing different neural regions). We seek to resolve this empathy-altruism divide by dissociating the neural mechanisms for recognizing and resonating with another's state from the neural mechanisms that motivate us to act. Theory and data predict that under certain conditions, acute physiological arousal to another's distress will motivate active helping while stressful physiological activation (acute or chronic) will inhibit helping due to a state of self-focus and protection. We will investigate empathy and altruism under conditions of acute and chronic physiological activation. Further, we will examine the utility of a stress-reducing intervention as a means to increase compassion in an applied setting. This work is theoretically grounded in interdisciplinary models of empathy and altruism and combines behavioral, autonomic, hormonal, and neural measures to investigate responses to real targets of need. In so doing, we can resolve the empathy-altruism divide while testing a novel theoretical model of altruism and a real-world intervention for compassion fatigue in a health-care setting.


Stephanie D. Preston, Ph.D., has a highly interdisciplinary background that has included work in multiple species and levels of analysis, allowing her to employ basic knowledge about the neural and physiological bases of behavior to understand complex human behavior in domains such as empathy, altruism, and decision making. She received her Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of California at Berkeley where she studied the effects of stress on decision making in food-storing animals. This was followed by a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Neurology, at the University of Iowa, examining the role of emotion in empathy and decision making. She is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan investigating the ways in which emotion and social behavior affect complex, real-world resource-allocation decisions regarding material resources and altruistic aid to others.

Tony W. Buchanan, Ph.D., works on the intersection between emotion and cognition. Dr. Buchanan's work has focused on the role that emotion plays in the encoding and retrieval of long-term memories. This work has been conducted both in neurologically healthy individuals as well as in neurological patients with damage to specific brain regions. More recent work in Dr. Buchanan's laboratory has focused on the role of emotional memory in the recurrence of major depressive disorder and the biological substrates of empathy for others undergoing stress. Dr. Buchanan's work has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression. He received his Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from the University of Oklahoma and went on to a postdoctoral fellowship in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Iowa. He is currently Assistant Professor of Psychology at Saint Louis University.

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