Tag Archives: empathy

Stress Increases Women’s Performance and Empathic Attunement, but not Men’s

Livia Tomova

Livia Tomova

Task performance, social interaction skills, and empathic attunement increase for women under stress, but not for men.
Women seek social support (“become prosocial”), but men turn toward themselves and away from others when they experience stress, according to University of Vienna’s Livia Tomova and Claus Lamm with Bernadette von Dawans and Markus Heinrichs of University of Freiburg, and Giorgia Silani, International School for Advanced Studies, SISSA-ISAS, Trieste

Claus Lamm

Claus Lamm

Tomova’s team evaluated the impact of stress on 20 women and 20 men, elicited by Clemens Kirschbaum, Karl-Martin Pirke, and Dirk Hellhammer’s (Universität) Trier Social Stress Test, in which participants delivered a speech and performed mental arithmetic in front of an audience.

Bernadette von Dawans

Bernadette von Dawans

Tomova and team measured “self-other distinctions” during three types of tasks:

  • Imitated movements  (perceptual-motor task): “Move objects on a shelf according to the instructions of a director,” requiring participants to “disentangle their own visual perspective” from that of the director,
  • Identifying  one’s  own  emotions or  other  people’s  emotions  (emotional  task),  or
  • Making a judgment from another person’s perspective (cognitive task).
Markus Heinrichs

Markus Heinrichs

As a comparison, 20 men and 20 women completed non-stressful activities like “easy counting.”

Women and men showed similar physiological reactions to stress, but stress decreased men’s performance in all tasks.
In contrast, women’s performance on all tasks improved under stress

Giorgia Silani

Giorgia Silani

Specifically, women who experienced stress demonstrated more accurate understanding of others’ perspective than non-stressed women and men.
However, men under stress showed less ability to accurately detect others’ probable thoughts and feelings.

Walter Cannon

Walter Cannon

Studies of stress were pioneered by Harvard’s Walter Cannon, who described the fight-or-flight response in1914, and popularized by Hans Selye of Université de Montréal.  

Hans Selye

Hans Selye

People can cope with stress by:

  • Seeking social support or
  • Reducing “internal cognitive load” that requires additional coping efforts.

One way to reduce “internal cognitive load” is to disconnect from others’ perspective and emotional experience through reducing empathy.
Besides this process of “mentalizing,” empathy also requires people to distinguish their representations of themselves from representations of others.

Clemens Kirschbaum

Clemens Kirschbaum

Women under stress “flexibly disambiguate” mental representations of themselves from others and increase “self-other distinction,” found Tomova’s research group.
This cognitive style enables women to more accurately perceive others’ perspective, enabling more empathic interaction with others in a “tend-and-befriend” approach.

In contrast, men under stress typically turn inward with “increased egocentricity” to conserve mental and emotional resources for “flight-or-flight” responses, leading to less adaptive social interactions.

Dirk Hellhammer

Dirk Hellhammer

These differences may be rooted in gender-specific learning experiences and biological differences including higher levels of oxytocin (a hormone that mediates social behaviors) among women who experienced stress, noted Tomova’s research team.
As a result, women may seek more frequently seek social support, may interact with others more empathically, and may be rewarded with external help in a reinforcing cycle.

Nikolas Rose

Nikolas Rose

Social support can improve performance and reduce stress, probably because the brain is “wired for sociality,” according to King’s College London’s Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached of Harvard.

Gender differences in performance under stress are associated with different styles of “sociality” and empathic insight.

-*How do you maintain task performance and “Emotional Intelligence” of empathy when experiencing stress?

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Implicit Discrimination Associated with Meritocratic Beliefs, Low Empathy

Michael Young

Michael Young

Americans more than other nationalities, embrace the idea of meritocracy – that rewards are distributed based on merit, a combination of ability + effort with success, described by University of London’s Michael Young with Sheri Kunovich of Southern Methodist University, and Ohio State’s Kazimierz M. Slomczynski.

Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, made headlines when asked his advice for women who are uncomfortable asking for a raise at the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
He told more than 12,000 women: “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise … It’s good karma. It will come back.”

Although his response resulted in widespread criticism, he may have been referring to the social penalty women experience when negotiating for salary increases and promotions.

Hannah Riley Bowles

Hannah Riley Bowles

Harvard’s Hannah Riley Bowles with Linda Babcock and Lei Lai of Carnegie Mellon demonstrated this social penalty when they showed volunteers videos of men and women asking for a raise using identical scripts.
Participants agreed to give both genders a pay increase, but evaluated women as “too aggressive” and not someone they would want to work with.
However, men in these salary negotiation situations were seen as “likable.”

Emilio Castilla

Emilio Castilla

The unequal impact of merit-based compensation on minorities was demonstrated in MIT’s Emilio J. Castilla’s analysis of almost 9,000 employees in support roles at a large service-sector company.
The organization espoused commitment to diversity and had implemented a merit-based compensation system intended to reward high-level performance and equitably reward employees.

Lei Lai

Lei Lai

Despite these egalitarian goals, women, ethnic minorities, and non-U.S.-born employees received smaller increases in compensation compared with white men, despite holding the same jobs, having the same performance score, working in the same units for the same supervisors.

These results illustrated what he called the performance-reward bias – the need for minority groups “to work harder and obtain higher performance scores in order to receive similar salary increases to white men.”

Stephen Benard

Stephen Benard

With his Indiana University colleague, Stephen Benard, Castilla uncovered the paradox of meritocracy” – organizations that espouse meritocratic values awarded a larger monetary reward to male employees compared with equally performing female employees.

Despite their positive intentions and policies, these organizations perpetuated unequal evaluations and rewards across equally performing employee groups.

Eric Luis Uhlmann

Eric Luis Uhlmann

In fact, people who think they are the most objective exhibited greatest evaluation bias, found Northwestern’s Eric Luis Uhlmann and Geoffrey L. Cohen of University of Colorado.
They attributed this finding to overconfidence in objectivity, leading to lack of self-scrutiny and self-assessment of potential and implicit bias.

Corinne Moss-Racusin

Corinne Moss-Racusin

This bias was also demonstrated when volunteers provided significantly more positive evaluations of resumes were attributed to whites and men than identical resumes linked to minority-group members and women, reported by Yale’s Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman.

John Dovidio

John Dovidio

Since egalitarian aspirations and performance management systems do not result in equitable reward distribution, MIT’s Castilla advocated increased transparency and accountability by creating a performance-reward committee to monitor compensation increases and to share information about pay segmented by gender, race, and nationality.
Five years after these changes were introduced in companies Castilla studied, he found that the demographic pay gap had disappeared.

Grit Hein

Grit Hein

Another way to reduce bias is to increase empathy, found Universität Bern’s Grit Hein, Jan B. Engelmann of Tinbergen Institute, and University of Zurich’s Philippe N. Tobler, with Marius C. Vollberg of University College London, in their study of 40 young men of Swiss or Balkan descent.

Participants and two research confederates received an electric charge on the back of the hand.
Next, one of the two confederates was attributed a typical Balkan name or a Swiss name, and was designated a “decision maker.”

Jan B. Engelmann

Jan B. Engelmann

Volunteers were then told they would receive “painful shocks,” but the “decision maker” could prevent this “by giving up money he would otherwise earn.”
Participants received help from the other person 15 times out of 20 trials, and received a shock five times.

Two new confederates, one with a Swiss name and one with a Balkan name, replaced the first two and the participant watched as one of them received the painful electrical pulses.
A brain scan measured the volunteers’s level of empathy for the person receiving the shock.

Philippe Tobler

Philippe Tobler

When the confederate with the Balkan minority name “helped” the participant avoid a shock by “sacrificing” a payoff, the volunteer’s brain scans demonstrated increased empathy for both the specific helper, and for other Balkan people.

The team interpreted this finding to suggest, “…empathy with an out-group member can be learned, and generalizes to other out-group individuals.”

If this trend can be replicated in the workplace by increasing organizational and managerial empathy for members of minority groups during the appraisal process, organizational rewards may be more equitably distributed.

-*How do you reduce bias in appraisal and reward processes?

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Group “Intelligence” Linked to Social Skills – and Number of Women Members

Anita Wooley Williams

Anita Wooley Williams

A group’s “general collective intelligence factor” is related to social and communication skills, not to the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members, found Carnegie Mellon’s Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris of Union College, with MIT colleagues Alex (“Sandy”) Pentland, Nada Hashmi, and Thomas W. Malone.

Instead, group intelligence was most closely associated with:

Christopher Chabris

Christopher Chabris

The research team analyzed group productivity of more than 695 volunteers in teams of two to five members working on representative workplace tasks including:

  • Logical analysis,
  • Coordination,
  • Planning,
  • Brainstorming,
  • Moral-ethical reasoning.
Alexander Pentland

Alexander Pentland

Each team worked together to complete a series of short tasks, which were selected to represent the varied workplace deliverables and volunteers also completed an individual I.Q. test.
Teams with higher average I.Q.s performed similarly on collective intelligence tasks as teams with lower average I.Q.s.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen

In addition, each participant completed a measure of empathy based on accuracy of identifying emotional states based on images of people’s eyes with no other clues, developed by University of Cambridge’s Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelright, Jacqueline Hill, Yogini Raste, and Ian Plumb.

This instrument, Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, evaluates Theory of Mind skills and social reasoning, not just the ability to recognize facial expressions associated with emotions and mental states.

Sally Wheelright

Sally Wheelright

Ability to infer other team members’ concerns and emotional states, measured by Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, correlated with team effectiveness in solving workplace tasks, but not extraversion and reported motivation.

What elements enhance a group’s collective intelligence when working virtually?

David Engel

David Engel

Wooley’s team collaborated with MIT’s David Engel and Lisa X. Jing to assess the impact of interpersonal sensitivity and empathy among 68 in-person or online teams on collective intelligence task performance.

Characteristics of superior-performing “smart” teams, both online and face-to-face echoed previous results favoring social and communication skills:

  • Strong emotion-reading, empathy, and interpersonal sensitivity,
  • Communication volume,
  • Equal participation.
Reading the Mind in the Eyes

Reading the Mind in the Eyes

These teams demonstrated high collective emotional intelligence when they also excelled in inferring others’ feelings and preferences even if conveyed without visual, auditory, or non-verbal cues when interacting online.

Teams may increase task performance when members have well-developed “Emotional Intelligence,” social insight, and communication skills rather than the highest measured IQ.

  • How do you enhance a work group’s collective intelligence in performance tasks?

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“Emotional Contagion” in the Workplace through Social Observation, Social Media

Many people have observed that emotions can be “contagious” between individuals, and can affect work group dynamics.

Douglas Pugh

Douglas Pugh

Emotional contagion is characterized by replicating and matching emotions displayed by others, and differs from empathy, which enables understanding another’s emotional experience without actually experiencing it, according to Virginia Commonwealth University’s S. Douglas Pugh.

Adam D I Kramer

Adam D I Kramer

In addition to direct interpersonal contact, “viral emotions” can be transmitted through social media platforms without observing nonverbal cues, according to Facebook’s Adam D. I. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory of University of California, San Francisco and Cornell University’s Jeffrey T. Hancock, suggesting further impact of social media on workplace interpersonal relations and productivity.

Jeffrey Hancock

Jeffrey Hancock

They found that when positive emotional expressions in Facebook News Feeds were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts.
In contrast, when negative emotional expressions were reduced, the people reduced negative posts, indicating that people’s emotional expressions on a massive social media platform like Facebook influences others’ emotions and behaviors.

Sigal Barsade

Sigal Barsade

Much empirical evidence shows that people in task performance situations are influenced by observing others’ emotions.
One example is performance in a decision-making task changed after people observed a trained confederate enacting mood conditions, according to Wharton’s Sigal Barsade.
When participants observed positive emotions, they were more likely to cooperate and perform better on group decision-making tasks.

People who tend to be more influenced by others’ emotions on R. William Doherty’s Emotional Contagion Scale also reported greater:

  • Reactivity
  • Emotionality
  • Sensitivity to others
  • Social functioning
  • Self-esteem
  • Emotional empathy

They also reported lower:

  • Alienation
  • Self-assertiveness
  • Emotional stability
Stanley Schachter

Stanley Schachter

Likelihood of being influenced by others emotions increases when individuals feel threated, which increases affiliation with others, according to Stanley Schachter‘s emotional similarity hypothesis.

Brooks B Gump

Brooks B Gump

This link between mimicking others’ emotions and perceived threat increases when people believe that others are also threatened, found Syracuse University’s Brooks B. Gump and James A. Kulik of University of California, San Diego.

Elaine Hatfield

Elaine Hatfield

Women in diverse roles (physicians, Marines, and students) reported greater emotional contagion of both positive and negative emotions on Doherty’s Emotional Contagion Scale.
Observers also rated these women as experiencing greater emotional contagion than men in research by Doherty with University of Hawaii colleagues Lisa Orimoto, Elaine Hatfield, Janine Hebb, and Theodore M. Singelis of California State University-Chico.

James Laird

James Laird

Further, people who are more likely to “catch” emotions from other are also more likely to actually feel emotions associated with facial expressions they adopt, reported Clark University’s James D. Laird, Tammy Alibozak, Dava Davainis, Katherine Deignan, Katherine Fontanella, Jennifer Hong, Brett Levy, and Christine Pacheco.
This finding suggests that those with greater susceptibility to emotional contagion are convincing actors – to themselves, and maybe others.

Christopher K. Hsee

Christopher K. Hsee

Contrary to expectation, people with greater power tend to pay more attention to and adopt emotions of people with less power, found University of Hawaii’s Christopher K. Hsee, Hatfield, and John G. Carlson with Claude Chemtob of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Participants adopted the role of “teacher” or “learner” to simulate role-based power differential, then were videotaped as they observed a videotape of a fictitious participant discussing an emotional experience.
Volunteers described emotions they experienced as they watched the confederate describe a “happiest” and “saddest” life event.
This finding indicates that leaders are more attuned to followers’ emotions than previously anticipated.

The service industry capitalizes on emotional contagion by training staff members to model positive emotions based on the assumption that positive emotions increase customer satisfaction and continued business.

James Kulik

James Kulik

In fact, customers were more influence by  service quality than employees’ positive emotion in determining customers’ satisfaction, according to Bowling Green State’s Patricia B. Barger and Alicia A. Grandey of Pennsylvania State University.

Positive emotional contagion has been used to advantage in sales, services, and health care settings, and can positively or negatively resonate through work organizations with impact on employee attitude, morale, engagement, and even customer service, safety, and innovation.

-*How do you intentionally model and convey emotions to individuals and group members?
-*What strategies do you use to manage susceptibility to “emotional contagion”?

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Reading Changes Brain Connectivity

Reading a novel causes measurable and persistent changes in brain connectivity, building on findings that reading literary fiction can increase empathic awareness.

Gregory Berns

Gregory Berns

Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” according Emory University’s Gregory S. Berns, who with Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula,and Brandon E. Pye used laboratory imaging to investigate the impact of reading fiction.

The team conducted resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging scan (fMRI) of 21 volunteers on 19 consecutive days.

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

The first five daily scans provided a baseline, then participants read 1/9th (about 30 pages) of Robert Harriss Pompeii, a 2003 thriller, during the evening of the next 9 days.
For the next 9 mornings, they completed a quiz on the novel’s content, then resting-state (non-reading) fMRI.

Kristina Blaine

Kristina Blaine

The brain scans showed significant connectivity increases in the left angular/supramarginal gyri in the left temporal cortex and right posterior temporal gyri, areas associated with perspective taking and story comprehension.

Michael Prietula

Michael Prietula

The last 5 daily scans occurred with no reading the previous evening, and showed persistent connectivity changes for up to five days in bilateral somatosensory cortex in the central sulcus, suggesting neural mechanisms for:

Olaf Hauk

Olaf Hauk

-“Embodied semantics,” described by University of Cambridge’s Olaf Hauk and Nadja Tschentscher, as well as University of Southern California’s Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Antonio Damasio

-“Grounded cognition,” summarized by Emory’s Lawrence Barsalou

Lawrence Barsalou

Lawrence Barsalou

Muscle memory, investigated by Amirkabir University of Technology’s Hossein Hassanpoor and Ali Fallah with Mohsin Raza of Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences.

Brandon Pye

Brandon Pye

This somatosensory activation suggests that reading a novel activates neural changes found with physical sensation and movement systems.
Berns noted that “…good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense …(and)… may also be happening biologically.”

These fMRI findings reinforce findings that reading award-winning fiction can increase empathic awareness of others and related interpersonal insight.

-*What non-fiction reading provided memorable empathic insights about others?

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Reading Literary Fiction Increases “Theory of Mind” Empathic Insight

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka opined that people should read literature as “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.”

David Comer Kidd-Emanuele Castano

David Comer Kidd-Emanuele Castano

New School for Social Research’s Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd showed the effectiveness of Kafka’s recommendation:  Reading award-winning literary fiction increased emotional intelligence, social perception, and empathy, known as Theory of Mind (ToM) abilities.

Theory of Mind (ToM) skills enable people to recognize and infer mental states like emotions, attitudes, concerns, and beliefs, and to understand that other people may have different beliefs, wishes, and goals.

In contrast, people with autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, neurotoxicity due to alcohol abuse, can experience ToM deficits.

Castano and Kidd asked volunteers ages 18 to 75 to read:

  • Commercial fiction or
  • Literary non-fiction or
  • Factual non-fiction or
  • Nothing

Next, they asked participants to describe their own emotional states, or people’s emotions from photographs of their eyes.

Those who read literary fiction more accurately judge others’ emotions, a measure of emotional intelligence, social perception, and empathy.
Results demonstrated that literary fiction, which requires making inferences about characters, their emotions, relationships, and motivations, triggered this increased social insight.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen

Examples of tests to assess these skills are summarized by Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert on autism, and cousin of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, along with the New School Researchers.

P. Matthijs Bal

P. Matthijs Bal

Vrije Universiteit‘s P. Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp of FrieslandCampina differentiated “transporting” fiction that “emotionally transported the reader into the story” with fiction that did not.

Martijn Veltkamp

Martijn Veltkamp

Bal and Veltkamp found that reading “transporting” fiction increases the reader’s empathic capabilities, but not fiction that lacks “transporting” qualities.

-*Which works of literary fiction have influenced your attitudes and empathic attunement with others?

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Compassion Training Surpasses Empathy Training to Reduce Stress

Susanne Leiberg

Susanne Leiberg

Compassion training has positive effects on mood and health, and University of Zurich’s Susanne Leiberg, Olga Klimecki, Tania Singer demonstrated that it can actually change the brain’s functioning, and related emotions and behaviors.

Olga Klimecki

Olga Klimecki

Klimecki, Leiberg, Singer, now at Max Planck Institute collaborated with Claus Lamm of University of Vienna to examine the impact of compassion training on brain activity in response to observing another person’s distress.

Tania Singer

Tania Singer

A frequent experience in daily life, most people experience distress, or empathy, when observing another’s distress, due to activation of the brain’s “mirror” neurons.

Claus Lamm

Claus Lamm

In contrast, compassion is concern with others’ suffering coupled with the desire to alleviate the other person’s pain, and can exist without actually experiencing the other persons’ distress through empathy.

The researchers evaluated whether personal distress be transformed into compassion, a useful coping strategy for those in health care professions, and in caretaking roles.
They developed the Socio-affective Video Task to measure neural and subjective responses to witnessing the distress of others.

Most volunteers experienced initial empathic negative feelings and activations in the brain’s pain empathy areas, the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex, when they observed the distress of others.
However, the volunteers who completed compassion training experienced less negative emotion, and more positive feelings when witnessing others in distress, related to increased activity in brain areas associated with positive emotion and affiliation:  the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, pallidum, and ventral tegmental area.

In contrast, control group volunteers who received memory training did not have more positive emotions, and participants in empathy training actually experienced more negative feelings.

The studies suggest that compassion training can be an effective coping strategy when observing or supporting others in distress, and the mental discipline of compassion training can increase positive emotion more effectively than memory training or empathy training.

Besides changing the brain and related feelings, compassion training triggered more “prosocial” behavior, including helping and cooperating.

This researcher team developed the Zurich Prosocial Game (ZPG) to validly assess helping behaviors in light of reciprocity, helping cost, and distress cues influences.
Volunteers who had received short-term compassion training increased their helping behaviors in the game, but this was not true for volunteers who received short-term memory training.

Charles Raison

Charles Raison

Emory University’s Charles Raison advocated compassion training as a better day to deal with “enemies,” whether globally or interpersonally.
He collaborated with Emory colleagues including Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, who developed Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) and Sheetal Reddy of Atlanta’s Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, to evaluate the impact of compassion training with youth in foster care.

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi

The team considered whether these participants, who had suffered maltreatment, experienced improved psychosocial functioning after twice-weekly Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) for six weeks compared with young people assigned to the “wait-list-no treatment” group.

Researchers found no difference in measured functioning, but young people who practiced compassion more frequently reported greater hopefulness and ability to deal with life stressors, and decreased generalized anxiety.

These findings suggest that compassion training can improve stress management, mood, and cooperation.

-*How have you seen compassion training affect feelings and behaviors?

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