ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2021, Vol. 29 ›› Issue (8): 1420-1429.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2021.01420

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Controllable empathy? The adjustability of empathy from a top-down view

CAO Si-Qi1,2, LIU Xun1,2(), WU Hai-Yan3()   

  1. 1CAS Key Laboratory of Behavioral Science, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
    2Department of Psychology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
    3Center for Cognition and Brain Sciences, Department of Psychology, University of Macau, Macau 999078, China
  • Received:2020-08-29 Published:2021-06-25
  • Contact: LIU Xun,WU Hai-Yan;


Empathy is our general ability to empathize with the emotional states of others. Studies have shown that empathy features automation and contextual dependence. However, the theoretical models and underlying neural mechanisms about empathy remain controversial. To meet real-world demands, researchers gradually shift their focus on the structure and function to the adjustability of empathy. Recently, it is indicated that the top-down psychological processes can play an important role in the adjustability of empathy, especially the goal of empathy and how to represent the value of the goal. A growing number of researchers recognize that empathy consists of three distinct but related processes (bottom-up emotional processes, top-down cognitive processes, and behavioral processes):1) affective empathy/experience sharing: the degree to which the emotional state matches the state of another; 2) cognitive empathy/mentalization/emotion identification: the mentalizing ability to recognize the emotional states of others; 3) empathic concern: internal motivation to improve the state of others. In recent years, some researchers have proposed that the top-down psychological process is related to the regulation of empathy, especially the representation of goals and the value trade-off between different goals significantly affect the generation and regulation of empathy. The forms of goal representation include: 1) high- and low-level goal. On the one hand, to prevent lower-level outcomes such as physical and mental fatigue, people tend to avoid empathizing with others. On the other hand, people are more likely to empathize with others when they pursue higher-level goals and positive outcomes such as social prestige. 2) long- and short-term goal. If empathy is regarded as a decision-making process with the attribute of time, time influences the manifestation of individual empathy by influencing the value representation of the goal in empathy. 3) Assuming dimensions of social meaningfulness. When empathizing with others, people may have a tendency toward an imaginary dimension that is regarded as socially meaningful, on which they are more likely to consider higher-level, long-term goals (morality, responsibility and obligation, self-concept, etc.) when making decisions. From the perspective of motivation, empathic motivation is a goal-oriented internal force that drives people towards or away from social connections. The two main types of goal-oriented empathic motivation include the opposite types of empathic motivation: approach motivation (altruism) and the avoidance motivation (apathy). The researchers show that targeted interventions can change the preferences and degrees of empathy. To sum up,the adjustability of empathy is discussed from a top-down perspective and the plasticity of empathy is emphasized. Studying empathy from the perspective of goal and motivation is crucial to understand the internal construction mechanism and external manifestation of empathy. Given goal influences the internal construction and external manifestation of empathy, future research should investigate empathy adjustability from a top-down perspective. In particular, the representation of goals and the trade-off between costs and benefits in goal-oriented empathy.

Key words: top-down, goal representation, approach/avoidance motivation, empathy adjustability

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