Witnessing peer rejection during adolescence: Neural correlates of empathy for experiences of social exclusion

Department of Psychology, University of California, 1285 Franz Hall, Box 951563, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563, USA.
Social neuroscience (Impact Factor: 2.66). 10/2010; 5(5-6):496-507. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2010.490673
Source: PubMed


Neuroimaging studies with adults have begun to reveal the neural bases of empathy; however, this research has focused on empathy for physical pain, rather than empathy for negative social experiences. Moreover, this work has not examined adolescents who may frequently witness and empathize with others that experience negative social experiences such as peer rejection. Here, we examined neural activity among early adolescents observing social exclusion compared to observing inclusion, and how this activity related to both trait empathy and subsequent prosocial behavior. Participants were scanned while they observed an individual whom they believed was being socially excluded. At least one day prior to the scan they reported their trait empathy, and following the scan they wrote emails to the excluded victim that were rated for prosocial behavior (e.g., helping, comforting). Observing exclusion compared to inclusion activated regions involved in mentalizing (i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal cortex), particularly among highly empathic individuals. Additionally, individuals who displayed more activity in affective, pain-related regions during observed exclusion compared to inclusion subsequently wrote more prosocial emails to excluded victims. Overall findings suggest that when early adolescents witness social exclusion in their daily lives, some may actually 'feel the pain' of the victims and act more prosocially toward them as a result.

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    • "Another open question is the mechanism by which the ostracism videos led to enhanced affiliative motivation. One possibility is that the effect was mediated by empathy for the ostracized individual (Masten et al., 2010, 2013 ). However, again, children in the ostracism condition did not report that they themselves felt sad, casting doubt on this explanation. "
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    • "Other than previous neuroimaging studies related to empathizing, findings from lesion studies or gray matter structural studies of neurodegenerative diseases have also consistently indicated that mPFC (especially the vmPFC) is involved with empathy (though, structures that are involved with empathy seem to vary between studies as well as between diseases; Rankin et al., 2006; Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2003, 2009). Furthermore, although a number of regions are activated during empathy, including mPFC (Morelli and Lieberman, 2013; Rameson et al., 2011; Singer, 2006), subjects with higher empathy experience greater activation of mPFC while observing social exclusion (Masten et al., 2010), viewing social scenes (Wagner et al., 2011), and during empathy (Rameson et al., 2011). Also, empathically accurate, as compared with inaccurate, judgments depended on the activity of the mPFC (Zaki et al., 2009). "
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    • "Similar results have been found for vicarious embarrassment [30]. However, empathetic responses to vicarious rejection seem to depend on emotional closeness with the victim [31]–[32]. For example, Wesselman, Bagg and Williams [33] found that observers who consciously identified with a victim of ostracism reported greater need threat than observers who did not. "
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    Full-text · Article · Apr 2014 · PLoS ONE
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