Distress and Empathy: Two Qualitatively Distinct Vicarious Emotions with Different Motivational Consequences


  • Preparation of this paper was supported in part by University of Kansas General Research Fund Grant #3375-XO-0038, C Daniel Batson, Principal Investigator, and by NSF Grant #BNS-8507110, C Daniel Batson, Principal Investigator Jim Fultz is now an NIMH Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychology, Arizona State University

Requests for reprints should be addressed to C Daniel Batson, Department of Psychology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045


ABSTRACT The construct of empathy may be located conceptually at several different points in the network of interpersonal cognition and emotion We discuss one specific form of emotional empathy—other-focused feelings evoked by perceiving another person in need First, evidence is reviewed suggesting that there are at least two distinct types of congruent emotional responses to perceiving another in need feelings of personal distress (e g, alarmed, upset, worried, disturbed, distressed, troubled, etc) and feelings of empathy (e g, sympathetic, moved, compassionate, tender, warm, softhearted, etc) Next, evidence is reviewed suggesting that these two emotional responses have different motivational consequences Personal distress seems to evoke egoistic motivation to reduce one's own aversive arousal, as a traditional Hullian tension-reduction model would propose Empathy does not The motivation evoked by empathy may instead be altruistic, for the ultimate goal seems to be reduction of the other's need, not reduction of one's own aversive arousal Overall, the recent empirical evidence appears to support the more differentiated view of emotion and motivation proposed long ago by McDougall, not the unitary view proposed by Hull and his followers