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Reiko Graham, Janine Harlow, Heidi Blocker, Chris Kelland Friesen, Roque Mendez; Individual differences in empathy and indices of face processing. Journal of Vision 2010;10(7):598. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/10.7.598.
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© ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)
Empathy is vital for social functioning, yet its relationship to lower level processes like face processing remains unknown. We examined whether individual differences in empathy (as indexed by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index; IRI, Davis, 1980) were related to facial expression processing, attentional disengagement from facial expression and reflexive orienting to gaze direction in three separate, but related experiments. In Experiment 1, sensitivity and decision biases in perceiving expression (fear, anger) were examined with a 2-alternative, forced-choice task using morphed facial expressions. While there was no relationship between the ability to detect the intensity of fear or anger alone, particular empathy subscales (perspective taking, personal distress and empathic concern) were significant predictors of how individuals interpreted blends of fear and anger. In Experiment 2, we examined whether individual differences in empathy were predictive of attentional disengagement from irrelevant emotional face distractors (happy, angry, fearful, and neutral faces) during a target detection task and found no relationship between empathy and attentional disengagement from emotional faces. In Experiment 3, we examined whether empathy was related to reflexive orienting to non-predictive gaze cues in emotional faces (fearful, happy). Results indicated that cuing effects at short SOAs were not related to personality differences. In contrast, cuing effects at long SOAs were predicted by individual differences in empathy (fantasy and empathic concern). We conclude that empathy (as indexed by the IRI) does not modulate rapid, sensory-driven perceptual or attentional processes. Rather, individual differences in empathy appear to play a role in decision processes associated with perceiving ambiguous facial expressions and only mediate reflexive orienting to gaze direction when there is sufficient time to process the face cue. Together these results suggest that empathy may influence later stages of processing associated with interpreting facial information.
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