Interaction between valence of empathy and familiarity: Is it difficult to empathize with the positive events of a stranger?

Yuki Motomura, Akira Takeshita, Yuka Egashira, Takayuki Nishimura, Yeon kyu Kim, Shigeki Watanuki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Empathy in humans is thought to have evolved via social interactions caused by the formation of social groups. Considering the role of empathy within a social group, there might be a difference between emotional empathy for strangers and familiar others belonging to the same social group. In this study, we used the global field power (GFP) index to investigate empathic brain activity during observation of a cue indicating either a negative or positive image viewed by a stranger or close friend. Methods: Sixteen healthy participants observed a partner performing an emotional gambling task displayed on a monitor. After the partner's choice-response, a frowning or smiling face symbol was simultaneously presented to the participant's monitor while a negative or positive emotional image was presented to the partner's monitor. All participants observed a control condition (CT) showing a computer trial, a stranger-observation condition (SO) showing the trial of a stranger, and a friend-observation condition (FO) to observe the trial of a close friend. During these observations, participants' event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded to calculate GFP, and after the task, a subjective assessment of their feelings was measured. Results: Positive emotion was significantly larger under the FO compared to the CT and the SO. Significantly larger negative emotion was found under the SO and FO compared to the CT. In response to a positive cue, significantly larger GFP during 300 to 600 ms was observed under the FO compared to the CT and SO. In response to a negative cue, significantly larger GFP was observed under the FO and SO compared to the CT. A significantly larger GFP under the SO was found in response to only a negative cue. Topographic map analysis suggested that these differences were related to frontal-occipital dynamics. GFP was significantly correlated with empathic trait. Conclusion: These results revealed that familiarity with another person has different effects depending on the valence of empathy. Negative empathy, including the danger perception function, might easily occur even among strangers, whereas positive empathy related to nursing and supporting an inner group does not happen easily with strangers.

Original languageEnglish
Article number13
JournalJournal of physiological anthropology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 22 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Physiology
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Anthropology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Physiology (medical)


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