Empathy for our fellow person's condition is something that we should all cultivate, but how far down the road will we travel? Not many as far as Sidney carton in “Tale Of Two Cities” as he heads off to the guillotine (sorry, but some puns are just irresistible) with the phrase “it’s a far, far better thing that I do now …..” and leaves Darnay free to lose his head over his wife, Lucie.

Us lesser mortals can do our bit though, given the opportunity. Grit et al used increases in skin conductance as a measure of empathy when a group of young women saw each other getting electric shocks (1). Young women were chosen so as not to bring the complicating factor of gender into the discussion. It seems that they may only have half the story, but perhaps they’ll extend the work to young men and get some shocking results.

The participants were each subjected to electric shocks ranging in pain levels from very mild to ouch!! The magnitude was displayed on a computer screen as a visual to any observer. The skin conductance of observers was measured to give an empathy strength reading. The more severe things looked, the sweatier the observers became

So far, so good. Nothing surprising, but this was just the baseline. The interesting experiment came when the observers could do a Sidney Carton, and offer to take the shock themselves and relieve the burden on the subject.

Two interesting finding turned up. The first is that those who showed more empathy were more likely to step up and volunteer to “take one for the team.” When shocked, the participants skin conductance increased, but the smaller the difference between the skin conductance between them being shocked and watching someone else suffering was a good predictor of their volunteering do a Carton.

These guys really need to do the same experiment with men and then with people from an older age group. Do empathic tendencies increase with age?

  1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0022759

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