Empathy for pain: The effects of prior experience and sex


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    The authors declare no conflicts of interest related to this article.


Mira A. Preis

E-mail: mira.preis@psych.uni-goettingen.de



Empathy is considered as both a characteristic trait and a variable state. The present experiment examined whether or not prior exposure to pain, perceived similarity, sex and attributed pain intensity are associated with state empathy for pain.


The state empathy of students (38 female, 42 male) in response to pictures displaying exposure to pressure pain was measured via self-reports, using a newly developed state empathy scale with the two subscales of ‘emotional response’ and ‘perspective taking’. Physiological responses were also recorded. Half of the participants were exposed to pressure pain prior to the experiment. Perceived similarity to the person being exposed to pain and their estimated pain intensity were assessed.


The results revealed that perceived similarity and sex were significantly related to the emotional dimension of empathy. This sex difference was partially mediated by the estimated intensity of pain. Women rated the intensity of pain more highly and achieved higher scores on the emotional response subscale. Exposure to pain predicted empathy on the perspective-taking subscale, resulting in higher scores when the subject had been exposed to the same pain stimulus. The physiological recordings did not correlate with any of the empathy scores.


Greater degrees of perceived similarity, being female and higher estimated pain were linked to a stronger ‘emotional reaction’, whereas previous exposure to pain facilitated ‘perspective taking’. Pointing out similarities between people and their past experiences, as well as focusing on the imagined discomfort being felt by another person, may modulate empathy for pain.