New Publication: Vicarious Fear Learning depends on Empathic Appraisals and Trait Empathy

People learn about the world not only through their own experiences, but also through the experiences of others.  Such vicarious learning helps people benefit not only from their own mistakes and successes, but also by watching what works (and does not work) for other people.  Which factors affect the extent to which much people learn vicariously from others?  Olsson and colleagues examined this question through a vicarious fear learning paradigm.  Participants observed social “targets” who in turn viewed blue and yellow squares on a screen, and received electric shocks in the presence of one of these colors.  Some participants were asked to empathize with targets, others were asked to think objectively about targets, and a third group was given no instructions.  We then examined participants’ own physiological responses to these squares, which they had learned about vicariously via targets.  Participants who empathized with targets showed a stronger vicarious learning response than those in the other two groups.  Further, participants in this group showed an especially strong vicarious learning reaction if they also scored highly on a trait empathy measure.  These data suggest that vicarious learning builds on at least two factors: how empathic a person is at a trait level, and how empathic they choose to be in the moment, at a state level. Click here for a complete list of SSNL publications.