Synchrony with distress in affective empathy and compassion

Yair Dor-Ziderman, Daniela Cohen, Nava Levit-Binnun, Yulia Golland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sensitivity to suffering of others is a core factor in social cohesion and evolutionary success. The emergence of such sensitivity may occur via two neuro-functional mechanisms. One is sharing the pain and distress of others, which relies on affective empathy. The other involves a caring concern for others' wellbeing, termed compassion. Both affective empathy and compassion are triggered by cues of pain and distress, exhibited by suffering targets. Yet, the mechanisms underlying distress processing in empathy and compassion are not clear. In the current research, we investigated synchrony with a target's distress, as a putative mechanism for continuous processing of distress cues. Participants viewed a video of a target in distress when given two different instructions: they were asked to continuously rate their distress in the affective empathy condition, or their feelings of care in the compassion condition. We used these dynamic ratings as well as participants' autonomic and facial responses to assess multi-channel synchrony with the target's self-rated distress fluctuations. Dynamic ratings and facial corrugator responses were significantly positively synchronized with the target's distress. For the corrugator responses, synchrony with the target was more pronounced than synchrony with participants' own ratings. Autonomic responses exhibited negative synchrony with the target's distress. Synchrony was higher in the affective empathy than in the compassion condition, across channels. These results point to the key role of subjective and physiological synchrony with the target's distress in empathic sharing of negative experiences. They also highlight the attenuation of embodied resonance with distress in compassionate experiences.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13889
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Society for Psychophysiological Research


  • affect dynamics
  • affective empathy
  • autonomic nervous system
  • compassion
  • facial electromyography
  • synchrony with distress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry


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