Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

I Suffer More from Your Pain When You Act like Me: Being Imitated Enhances Affective Responses to Seeing Someone Else in Pain

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

I Suffer More from Your Pain When You Act like Me: Being Imitated Enhances Affective Responses to Seeing Someone Else in Pain

Article excerpt

Abstract Social-psychological research has suggested that being imitated changes the way that we experience others: We like someone who imitates us more, and the interaction with this person runs more smoothly. Whether being imitated also affects basic social reactions, such as empathy for pain, is an open question. Empathy for pain refers to the observation that perceiving another person in pain results in pain-related brain activation in the observer. The aim of the present study was to combine the two lines of research, to investigate whether being imitated can influence empathy for pain. To this end, we developed an experimental approach combining an imitation task with a pain perception task. Subjective reports, as well as physiological responses, indicated that being imitated enhances affective responses to seeing someone else in pain. Furthermore, using rubber hand illusion measures, we provided evidence for the role of shared representations in the sensory and motor domains as a core underlying mechanism. In this way, our study integrated social-psychological research on being imitated with cognitive research on empathy for pain. This has broad implications, since imitation plays a crucial role in our daily social interactions, and our study provides insights into a basic cognitive mechanism that might underlie these social situations.

Keywords Imitation · Empathy for pain · Shared representations · Startle blink reflex · Skin conductance · Rubber hand illusion

Imitation is an important part of the human behavioral repertoire. It sometimes occurs automatically, without intention, and even between complete strangers (Brass, Bekkering, & Prinz, 2001; Brass, Bekkering, Wöhlschläger, & Prinz, 2000; Lakin & Chartrand, 2003). Moreover, an extensive body of social-psychological research has shown that imitation is very important for our social life, by changing the way that we experience others. Research on the so-called chameleon effect has suggested that we like someone who imitates us more, and that interactions with this person correspondingly run more smoothly (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). Furthermore, several experiments have indicated that being imitated enhances prosocial orientation (positive social behavior toward others; Kühn et al., 2010;Lakin,Chartrand,&Arkin,2008; Stel, van Baaren, & Vonk, 2008).

Although the positive consequences of being imitated have been demonstrated for relatively complex social behavior, such as liking and prosocial actions, the question arises whether being imitated also influences more automatic and implicit social processes, such as reacting to someone else being in pain. Several studies have demonstrated that perceiving another person in pain activates brain regions involved in the affective-motivational dimensions of pain (Goubert, Vervoort, & Craig, 2012; Jackson, Meltzoff, & Decety, 2005; Lamm, Decety, & Singer, 2011; Singer et al., 2006), especially when one has an affective relationship with the person observed (Cheng, Chen, Lin, Chou, & Decety, 2010;Singeretal.,2004). This finding, called empathy for pain, shows that the observation of pain activates pain-related brain regions in the observer that are also active when directly experiencing pain. Thus, it indicates that first-person experience of pain and the observation of pain in others are based on shared neural circuits, with growing evidence for both affective and sensory sharing in empathy for pain responses (Bufalari, Aprile, Avenanti, Di Russo, & Aglioti, 2007; Cheng, Yang, Lin, Lee, & Decety, 2008; Lamm, Nusbaum, Meltzoff, & Decety, 2007; Loggia, Mogil, & Bushnell, 2008; for a review, see Keysers, Kaas, & Gazzola, 2010). Several studies have indicated that this sharing of representations when observing someone else in pain can be influenced by a wide range of cognitive mechanisms, and is thus modulated by top-down processing (e.g., Cheng et al., 2007; Decety, Echols, & Correll, 2010;de Vignemont & Singer, 2006; Hein & Singer, 2008; Lamm, Meltzoff, & Decety, 2010; Singer et al. …

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