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Contemplative practices are believed to alleviate psychological problems, cultivate prosocial behavior and promote self-awareness. In addition, psychological science has developed tools and models for understanding the mind and promoting well-being. Additional effort is needed to combine frameworks and techniques from these traditions to improve emotional experience and socioemotional behavior. An 8-week intensive (42 hr) meditation/emotion regulation training intervention was designed by experts in contemplative traditions and emotion science to reduce “destructive enactment of emotions” and enhance prosocial responses. Participants were 82 healthy female schoolteachers who were randomly assigned to a training group or a wait-list control group, and assessed preassessment, postassessment, and 5 months after training completion. Assessments included self-reports and experimental tasks to capture changes in emotional behavior. The training group reported reduced trait negative affect, rumination, depression, and anxiety, and increased trait positive affect and mindfulness compared to the control group. On a series of behavioral tasks, the training increased recognition of emotions in others (Micro-Expression Training Tool), protected trainees from some of the psychophysiological effects of an experimental threat to self (Trier Social Stress Test; TSST), appeared to activate cognitive networks associated with compassion (lexical decision procedure), and affected hostile behavior in the Marital Interaction Task. Most effects at postassessment that were examined at follow-up were maintained (excluding positive affect, TSST rumination, and respiratory sinus arrhythmia recovery). Findings suggest that increased awareness of mental processes can influence emotional behavior, and they support the benefit of integrating contemplative theories/practices with psychological models and methods of emotion regulation.
Social comparison can elicit emotions such as envy, which can affect social interactions. The emergence and development of such social emotions through ontogeny, and their influence on social interaction, are unknown. We tested 182 children from 7 to 13 years of age with a novel monetary reward-and-punishment task measuring envy and Schadenfreude (i.e., gloating or taking delight in someone else’s misfortune). Children were either rewarded or punished in a trial-by-trial evaluation of their performance on a speeded reaction time task. In a social condition, feedback of their own and a competitor’s performance was given for each trial. Afterward, children rated how they felt about the outcome. The ratings suggest that when children won, they felt better if the competitor lost instead of winning (i.e., Schadenfreude). Conversely, when children lost, they felt worse if the competitor won instead of losing (i.e., envy). Crucially, levels of envy and Schadenfreude decreased with age. We also studied how these emotions relate to social decisions made separately during three resource allocation paradigms. In each, children chose between two options that differed in the distribution of valuable tokens between themselves and an anonymous other. The combination of choices allowed the measurement of inequity aversion (i.e., equality for all) and spite (i.e., self-profit to maximal disadvantage of the other). We found an age-related increase in inequity aversion and decrease in spite. Crucially, age-related changes in both envy and Schadenfreude predicted the developmental change in equity-related decisions. These findings shed light on the development of social emotions and demonstrate their importance in the development of prosocial behavior in children.
Lower social class (or socioeconomic status) is associated with fewer resources, greater exposure to threat, and a reduced sense of personal control. Given these life circumstances, one might expect lower class individuals to engage in less prosocial behavior, prioritizing self-interest over the welfare of others. The authors hypothesized, by contrast, that lower class individuals orient to the welfare of others as a means to adapt to their more hostile environments and that this orientation gives rise to greater prosocial behavior. Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion. Implications for social class, prosocial behavior, and economic inequality are discussed.
The phenomenon of empathy entails the ability to share the affective experiences of others. In recent years social neuroscience made considerable progress in revealing the mechanisms that enable a person to feel what another is feeling. The present review provides an in-depth and critical discussion of these findings. Consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion. Part of the neural activation shared between self- and other-related experiences seems to be rather automatically activated. However, recent studies also show that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon, and that vicarious responses are malleable with respect to a number of factors—such as contextual appraisal, the interpersonal relationship between empathizer and other, or the perspective adopted during observation of the other. Future investigations are needed to provide more detailed insights into these factors and their neural underpinnings. Questions such as whether individual differences in empathy can be explained by stable personality traits, whether we can train ourselves to be more empathic, and how empathy relates to prosocial behavior are of utmost relevance for both science and society.
How is spirituality, which refers to the emotional connection to the transcendent, related to compassion and to altruistic behavior towards strangers? Are the effects of spirituality different from those of religiosity, which refers to living according to the rules and rituals of religion? We hypothesized that, even though correlated, spirituality and religiosity would have different associations with compassion and altruistic behavior. The first two studies documented that more spiritual individuals experience greater compassion, and that this effect was specific to spirituality and could not be explained by religiosity. Because compassion has the capacity to motivate people to transcend selfish motives and act in altruistic fashion towards strangers, we reasoned that spirituality (but not religiosity) would predict altruistic behavior and that this link would be explained, in part, by compassion. Indeed, Studies 3, 4, and 5 found that more spiritual individuals behaved more altruistically in economic choice and decision-making tasks, and that the tendency of spiritual individuals to feel greater compassion mediated the relationship between spirituality and altruistic behavior. In contrast, more religious participants did not consistently feel more compassion nor behave more altruistically. Together, these findings help clarify why spirituality produces more prosocial behavior.
Prosociality is fundamental to social relationships, but providing it indiscriminately risks exploitation by egoists. Past work demonstrates that individuals avoid these risks through a more selective form of prosociality, cooperating less and sharing fewer resources with egoists (e.g. Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981). The evolution of cooperation. Science, 211(4489), 1390–1396). We extend this work to explore whether individuals experience reduced prosocial affective and physiological responses to egoists in situations where they are suffering. In two studies, participants learned of a target’s egoistic or non-egoistic traits, and then encountered the target suffering. Suffering egoists evoked less compassion in others than non-egoists and elicited physiological responses that diverged from patterns associated with compassion and social engagement (reduced heart rate and greater respiratory sinus arrhythmia activity). Participants' feelings of distrust toward egoists explained these attenuated emotional and physiological responses. These results build upon studies of prosocial behavior by suggesting that individuals experience reduced prosocial emotional and physiological responses toward suffering egoists.
Do people benefit when they think their partner has made a sacrifice for the relationship? In a multimethod study of 80 couples, we examined whether people can detect when their partner suppresses their emotions and if perceived partner suppression is costly for the recipient of sacrifice. When people listened to their partner recall an important sacrifice in the lab and when people thought their partner sacrificed in daily life, they thought that their partner was less authentic the more they perceived them to have suppressed their emotions. In turn, perceived partner inauthenticity during sacrifice was associated with poorer personal well-being and relationship quality. These effects persisted over time with perceived partner suppression predicting poorer relationship quality 3 months later. The results were independent from the influence of an actor’s projection of their own suppression and their partner’s actual suppression. Implications for research on emotion regulation and close relationships are discussed.