Imagine you are invited into a lab to partake in a study concerning empathy. There, you are presented with one of the following scenarios: either you witness someone who has just fallen off a bike and injured himself, or you witness your friend being distraught over a recent breakup.

Each of these scenarios depicts some form of suffering, but the nature of the suffering is not the same. In the first scenario, you see someone suffering due to a physical injury, while in the second, you see suffering from an interpersonal rupture, which manifests itself more emotionally.

This inspires the question: will witnessing these two forms of suffering cause the same empathic response?

The answer is not quite, as these two forms of suffering could share similarities while still being distinct, according to a U of T-affiliated study. Co-authors included Dr. Jennifer Stellar, an assistant professor at UTM’s Department of Psychology, Arasteh Gatchpazian who is a graduate student at UTSC, and Dr. Craig L Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Francisco.

Inconsistent findings across research fields

To date, the physiological, emotional, and behavioural markers of empathy have often been inconsistent across different disciplines, such as psychology and neuroscience, according to the paper.

The reason for this inconsistency, according to the co-authors, is that while empathic responses are usually aroused by stimuli depicting some form of suffering, much research fails to account for whether observers construe suffering as primarily physical — for example, injuring yourself — or emotional, like grief.

Thus, this study aimed to delineate the behavioural, emotional, and physiological markers of empathy. Importantly, the co-authors made a clear distinction between markers involving physical suffering and those involving emotional suffering.

Differences in the body’s reaction

The emotional and physiological markers deserve the most attention. “We found that people were more likely to have emotions like compassion and sympathy when people were emotionally suffering, and were more likely to report anxiety and alarm and nervousness when people were physically suffering,” said Stellar in an interview with The Varsity.

This distinction, she emphasized, is important. Such research maintains that one’s attention should be directed to being other-focused and compassionate.

“If [someone is] physically suffering, there seems to be a useful component of being anxious and alert and alarmed that’s actually part of empathy, and not a hindrance to empathy,” she continued.

Another surprising finding of their study is the physiological empathic responses. According to Gatchpazian, the paper “predicted that physical suffering would activate the fight-or-flight system (sympathetic activation) and emotional suffering would activate the rest-and-digest system (parasympathetic activation). In our studies, we actually observed that both systems were activated for physical suffering.”

“Witnessing physical suffering may be quite intense for individuals and more complex than we had initially hypothesized,” wrote Gatchpazian to The Varsity.

“It also reminded us that completely teasing apart emotional and physical suffering is difficult,” Gatchpazian noted. “For example, at first glance, an athlete who experiences a sports injury may be classified as physical suffering, but it also has an element of emotional suffering because the athlete may no longer be able to play the sport that they love.”

Behavioural markers also played a role. For these, the co-authors found that someone witnessing emotional suffering would more likely engage in “interpersonal emotional regulation” behaviours, such as injecting optimism or humour into the situation, in order to comfort the distressed individual.

However, for someone witnessing physical suffering, they are more likely to elicit “emergency mobilization responses” — hands-on behaviours that provide a practical remedy to the situation. When someone falls off a bike, for example, an emergency mobilization response would be to call for help, or to try to bandage the wound.

“Empathy is not monolithic”

Ultimately, the main takeaway of this research is providing a “clear, unambiguous conceptualization of empathy” to “allow for communication and reconciliation across disciplines that study empathic responding,” Gatchpazian continued.

For example, researchers could identify whether their stimuli depict emotional suffering, physical suffering, or a blend of both.

Overall, “empathy is not monolithic,” said Stellar. It contains many nuances — and as put forth by this paper, one of such nuances is that empathic responses vary based on whether the suffering is primarily physical, as when someone falls off a bike, or emotional, as when someone loses a friend.