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Two hypotheses have been proposed regarding the response that is triggered by observing others' pain: the "empathizing hypothesis" and the "threat value of pain hypothesis." The former suggests that observing others' pain triggers an empathic response. The latter suggests that it activates the threat-detection system. In the present study, participants were instructed to observe pictures that showed an anonymous hand or foot in a painful or non-painful situation in a threatening or friendly social context. Event-related potentials were recorded when the participants passively observed these pictures in different contexts. We observed an interaction between context and picture in the early automatic N1 component, in which the painful pictures elicited a larger amplitude than the non-painful pictures only in the threatening context and not in the friendly context. We also observed an interaction between context and picture in the late P3 component, in which the painful pictures elicited a larger amplitude than the non-painful pictures only in the friendly context and not in the threatening context. These results indicate that specific social contexts can modulate the neural responses to observing others' pain. The "empathic hypothesis" and "threat value of pain hypothesis" are not mutually exclusive and do not contradict each other but rather work in different temporal stages.
This article was published in the following journal.
Name: Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience
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