September 2019
Volume 19, Issue 10
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2019
Positive and negative empathy exert different effects on the perception of neutral faces with direct and averted gaze
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Sarah D McCrackin
    University of Waterloo
  • Roxane J Itier
    University of Waterloo
Journal of Vision September 2019, Vol.19, 217b. doi:
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      Sarah D McCrackin, Roxane J Itier; Positive and negative empathy exert different effects on the perception of neutral faces with direct and averted gaze. Journal of Vision 2019;19(10):217b. doi:

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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Empathy, the ability to share another’s emotional state, is a hallmark of social cognition. Recent evidence suggests there are different neural correlates for sharing negative and positive emotion (so-called negative and positive empathy), but it is unknown how these two empathy types effect face perception. We tracked the time-course of when empathy impacted face perception using event-related potentials (ERPs). As perceiving direct gaze is associated with positive affect and increased emotional awareness, we also investigated the interaction between gaze direction and empathy. On each trial, a sentence eliciting positive, negative, or no empathy (e.g. “Her pet dog was saved/killed/fed yesterday afternoon.”) was presented, followed by a direct or averted gaze neutral face picture of the individual described. Participants rated how much empathy they felt, and the valence of their emotional state. Eye-tracking ensured participants read the sentences and fixated on the face eye-region. Mean ERP amplitudes were analysed in 100ms windows post-face presentation (100–800ms) in a preliminary sample (n=31). The Early Posterior Negativity (EPN), an ERP component modulated by facial expressions, was enhanced for faces viewed within the two empathy conditions relative to the neutral condition, despite all faces bearing a neutral expression. Furthermore, relative to neutral trials, positive empathy trials elicited more positive amplitudes at frontal sites from 300–600ms, while negative empathy trials elicited more positive amplitudes at centroparietal sites from 500–800ms. Finally, during the positive empathy condition only, direct gaze elicited smaller EPN amplitudes than averted gaze, and more self-reported empathy (statistical trend). Participants also reported experiencing more positive emotion after viewing direct than averted gaze, and this effect was largest in the positive empathy and neutral conditions. Those results suggest that positive and negative empathy have a distinct spatio-temporal effect on face perception and that gaze direction uniquely interacts with positive empathy.

Acknowledgement: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC Discovery Grant #418431) 

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