Empathic brains make faster social choices
Just out these days, our recent paper in the journal Social Neuroscience is about how empathy can drive choices in social dilemmas. In this study, we use both behavioural economics and fMRI scanning to explore how individual differences in empathic ability can affect social behaviours.
This is described in the abstract:
Empathy was related to specific engagement of the mentalising network of the brain.
“Decision-making in social dilemmas is suggested to rely on three factors: the valuation of a choice option, the relative judgment of two or more choice alternatives, and individual factors affecting the ease at which judgments and decisions are made. Here, we test whether empathy—an individual’s relative ability to understand others’ thoughts, emotions, and intentions—acts as an individual factor that alleviates conflict resolution in social decision-making. We test this by using a framed, iterated prisoners’ dilemma (PD) game in two settings. In a behavioral experiment, we find that individual differences in empathic ability (the Empathy Quotient, EQ) were related to lower response times in the PD game, suggesting that empathy is related to faster social choices, independent of whether they choose to cooperate or defect. In a subsequent neuroimaging experiment, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we find that EQ is positively related to individual differences in the engagement of brain structures implemented in mentalizing, including the precuneus, superior temporal sulcus, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These results suggest that empathy is related to the individual difference in the engagement of mentalizing in social dilemmas and that this is related to the efficiency of decision-making in social dilemmas.”
Basically, our finding suggests the following:
1) In social dilemmas, each action option has some value to the person
2) in dilemmas, two or more such values compete with each other for realisation, but in some cases, the values are too proximate for a neat resolution
3) individual differences in empathic ability is related to faster resolution of decision conflict
When scanning people’s brain during the social dilemmas, the inclusion og empathic ability (the Empathy Quotient score, EQ) was related to specific engagement of the mentalising network of the brain. That is, the more empathic you are, the stronger the activity of this network during social dilemmas.
Being empathic is NOT the same as having sympathy with another person. Rather, empathy denotes our ability to put ourselves in another person’s place and relate to what they are feeling and thinking. Individual differences in this ability was related to changes in the engagement of the mentalising network.
Empathic ability made social choices easier to compute and act upon
Then, the question was whether such an effect of empathy could be related to changes in behaviour. Indeed, what we found was that people with higher EQ scores spent less time on deliberating in social dilemmas. In other words, empathy helped them make social choices faster. By looking at the brain regions related to this, we found stronger engagement of the putamen, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior insula, regions that have previously been implicated in value-based decision making.
Together, these results show that our empathic ability is related to the ease (or difficulty) with which we can make decisions in social dilemmas. Indeed, we did find that the faster people made up their mind, the more likely it was that the choice was to cooperate. This suggests that cooperation is a default social choice in humans.