Empathic people quicker to learn to help others, study shows

Although people are slower to learn to do tasks that help other people, research participants rated as more empathic proved to be quicker learners

People with a higher level of empathy learn to help others more quickly than their more hard-hearted peers, scientists say.

Researchers scanned the brains of more than 30 individuals while they learned how to carry out a task for their own benefit, someone else’s benefit or no-one’s benefit.

The results revealed that, on average, participants learned how to “win” at the task most quickly when they were the one to benefit. But, when it came to winning rewards for others, those who were more empathic were quicker learners.

“Overall people are slower to learn to help somebody else,” said Patricia Lockwood, lead author of the research from the University of Oxford. “But people who report themselves to be higher in empathy learn at a similar rate to benefit themselves and the other person.”

Writing in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Oxford and University College, London describe how they sought to probe the link between empathy and actions that are carried out to benefit others - so-called “prosocial behaviours”.

The researchers began by scanning the brains of 31 men, aged between 19 and 32, while they carried out a task in which they were asked to select one of two symbols on a computer screen. One of the symbols was linked with a high chance of scoring points that would then be converted into a cash prize, while the other had a low chance of winning points. By a process of trial and error, the participants were able to work out which symbol was most likely to scoop them a high score and hence more cash.

The process was carried out for three scenarios: one in which the prize money was kept by the participant themselves, once where it was being won for somebody they had only just met, and one where no-one received any prize money.

The scientists then used a computer model to analyse how quickly the participants learnt to associate the correct symbol with a high chance of winning points, and to probe how activity changed in different regions of the brain during such learning.

The results revealed that, on average, the participants learned which was the point-scoring symbol more slowly when they were gathering points for somebody else, or for no-one, than when they were notching up points to win money for themselves.

The scientists then analysed data from regions of the brain thought to be involved in learning. Changes in activity in a region called the ventral striatum reflected the way in which the participants learnt to rack up the points in all three scenarios, while changes in activity in a region known as the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC), were only linked to how participants learned to benefit someone else.

“The sgACC increases its activity when the outcome for another person is better than expected, so when we score points for the other person, and decreases its activity when the outcome for another person is worse than expected, so when we don’t score points for the other person,” said Lockwood.

That, the scientists say, suggests that the sgACC is involved in learning how to tackle tasks that benefit others.

Each participant was also asked to complete a standard questionnaire to probe their empathy levels. The scientists found that participants who ranked higher for empathy levels were faster learners when it came to winning points for others in the initial task. Those with higher levels of empathy were also found to have stronger responses in the sgACC when undertaking the task for the benefit of others.

Bhismadev Chakrabarti, professor of neuroscience and mental health at the University of Reading, said the research adds to a growing body of evidence that empathy and prosocial behaviour are linked. But, he adds, the work does not reveal whether being more empathic leads to someone being better at learning how to win awards for others, or whether it is being a quicker learner at such tasks that increases empathy.

t would be interesting to explore whether the same results are found in more everyday examples of prosocial behaviour, says Chakrabarti. “You might be fantastic at learning the rules of the game, whether you are playing for yourself or whether you are playing for another person, but does it translate to whether you would give more money to charity and so on?” he said.

Chakrabarti believes the identity of the person you are playing the game for is also an important consideration. “If you were playing on behalf of your best friend versus playing on behalf of a complete stranger I think there might be slightly different levels of motivation for that,” he said. “Empathy is not a fixed thing.”


Nicola Davis

The GuardianTramp

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