Empathy Can Fuel Aggression

Liam Davenport

November 17, 2014

Empathy can manifest as aggression, even when considering the plight of a stranger, US researchers have discovered in findings that shed light on the neurobiological basis of compassion.

The team, from the State University of New York at Buffalo, found that the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin appear to mediate the link between empathy and aggression independently of provocation and even on behalf of strangers.

"These findings shed new light on the nature of empathy, as well as on predictors of aggression and violence," the researchers write. "Our findings additionally reaffirm the view that the caregiving behavioral system functions in humans to address not only needs for nurturance and comfort, but also needs for protection."

The research is published in the November issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

"Primitive" Aggression

The study was inspired by the observation that previously passive and kind individuals may act in an aggressive and violent manner when they feel empathy for someone under threat. This has been well demonstrated in the animal literature but has received less attention in human studies.

Furthermore, previous investigations have indicated that oxytocin and vasopressin may play a role in these responses.

"Not only have oxytocin and vasopressin both been associated with empathic responses or helping responses to some degree...but also, interestingly, both of these neurohormones in the animal literature have been associated with aggressive responses ― and not just any kind of aggression but specifically the primitive aggression that we are talking about," study coauthor Anneke Buffone, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University at Buffalo, told Medscape Medical News.

The researchers conducted two separate studies into the link between empathy and aggression.

"In the first study, we were looking at somebody hurting somebody that individuals cared about ― that they knew well ― and we looked at whether empathy can fuel an aggressive impulse," said Buffone.

Specifically, the investigators asked 69 undergraduates to self-report empathy and aggression about a time in the past 12 months when they witnessed a person with whom they had a close relationship ("close other") being hurt physically or emotionally by a third party.

In addition, DNA from participants' saliva samples was examined for two variants in the arginine vasopressin 1a receptor gene (AVPR1a) and one variant in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR).

Twenty-six participants reported confronting the third party physically, verbally, or by other means. There was a significant two-way interaction between distress of the close other and empathy (P < .001), such that empathy marginally predicted a higher likelihood of aggression when the close other was perceived to be highly distressed.

This was affected by the AVPR1a rs3 variant, with a short/short version predicting less aggression and longer versions higher aggression; the GG genotype of OXTR rs53576 significantly predicted increased aggression.

General Effect

"In the second study, what we show is that this can actually happen on behalf of a complete stranger," said Buffone.

They did this by recruiting 162 individuals, who first provided a saliva sample for DNA extraction and then took part in a task. They were told that they would rate the personality of one of a pair of fictional participants described as strangers to each other.

They were then told that one participant would be exposed to hot sauce to inflict pain during a math competition and that the winner of the competition would receive US$20. The individuals were then presented with an empathy statement about one of the fictional participants and given the opportunity to inflict hot sauce on the competitor.

"The people that came into the lab had in no way, shape, or form known the other person, and the story that they were told also wouldn't be something that should elicit any form of anger," Buffone explained. "They were told these two people are in competition with each other, this person needs money, that their car broke down."

"It's not necessarily a situation where you would expect this strong a reaction, but empathy was able to motivate an aggressive impulse in the context of the lab."

Buffone stated: "It was important for us to show this is something that happens both in close relationships but it can also happen for strangers. So this is a general effect."

Again, the outcomes were modified by oxytocin and vasopressin gene variants, although the specific effects were different from those seen in the first study.

Wider Implications

Discussing the wider implications of the findings, Buffone said that they cast new light on empathy-motivated aggression.

"I think that people maybe have this idea that it shouldn't be as punishable, but it's something that has really not been explored well enough at all."

"If people are doing research into things like terrorism or motivators for these behaviors [and] you leave out this idea of empathy-motivating effects, then it is much harder to address these problems at the core. Of course, something very intuitive to do would be to address this empathy from the beginning," she added.

Taking terrorism as an example, Buffone stated: "A lot of these people live in very marginalized circumstances, and one of the things that terrorist organizations do is help the families of people who are martyrs."

She went on to say that many of the people who go on jihad from Europe and America claim they are motivated by concerns that people living in Muslim countries are treated unfairly. "There is an impulse to help, an empathic impulse that can fuel really negative behaviors," she said.

"An easy way to address this problem might be to take the perspective of the people that get hurt by the terrorist organization. Just flipping around the empathy is helpful because empathy doesn't motivate aggression just for no reason, it motivates aggression because someone is being hurt that the person cares for.... Then it becomes much harder to want to aggress," she added.

"One of the things that this study showed is that perspective-taking was one of the ways in which people feel empathy," Buffone concluded.

The authors have reported no significant financial relationships.

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2014;40:1406-1422. Abstract


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