Sex Differences in the Regulation of Pain Empathy: Evidence from the EEG Mu Rhythm Measurements


Contrary to the long-held belief that empathyㅡsharing others’ emotionsㅡis reflexive and automatic, recent evidence has begun to emphasize the role of top-down modulation in empathic experience. That is, empathy is increasingly being regarded as a phenomenon regulated by motivation. The aim of the present study is to investigate whether there exist sex differences in empathy regulation, a possibility previously discussed in the literature, although never directly tested via a controlled experiment. We measured the EEG mu suppression as a reliable index of somatomotor empathic resonance for others’ pain. As of today, 19 subjects (12 men; 15 men and 15 women by the time of presentation) viewed pictures of painful situations either passively, or actively trying to up- or down-regulate empathy (i.e., 2sex by 3empathy-regulation design). The preliminary results showed that men, as expected, exhibited significantly stronger mu suppression during up-regulation, compared to the down-regulation condition. For women, however, the pattern was reversed; somatomotor resonance was significantly stronger during down-regulation, compared to the up-regulation condition. One interpretation of such results is that women experienced greater difficulty down-regulating empathy, and their active inhibiting efforts “backfired”, paradoxically leading to the high level of empathy. In conclusion, pain empathy for men may be more motivational in nature, whereas for women it may be more automatic and harder to control as an evolutionarily-preserved response. These results provide further evidence to the Primary-Caretaker Hypothesis, which posits that empathy has originally evolved from offspring care, a role predominantly undertaken by females.

Author Information
Sooyeon Choi, Seoul National University, South Korea
Sung-Eun Lee, Seoul National University, South Korea

Paper Information
Conference: ACP2021
Stream: General Psychology

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Posted by James Alexander Gordon