Motivational effects on empathic choices

Amanda M. Ferguson, C. Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Empathy often feels automatic, but variations in empathic responding suggest that, at least some of the time, empathy is affected by one's motivation to empathize in any particular circumstance. Here, we show that people can be motivated to engage in (or avoid) empathy-eliciting situations with strangers, and that these decisions are driven by subjective value-based estimations of the costs (e.g., cognitive effort) and benefits (e.g., social reward) inherent to empathizing. Across seven experiments (overall N = 1348), and replicating previous work (Cameron et al., 2019), we found a robust empathy avoidance effect. We also find support for the hypothesis that individuals can be motivated to opt-in to situations requiring empathy that they would otherwise avoid. Participants were more likely to opt into empathy-eliciting situations if 1) they were incentivized monetarily for doing so (Experiments 1a and 1b), and 2) if a more familiar and liked empathy target was available (Experiments 2a and 2b). Framing empathy as explicitly related to one's moral character and reputation did not motivate participants to engage in empathy (Experiment 3a and 3c), though these null results may be due to a weak manipulation. These findings suggest that empathy can be motivated in multiple ways, and is a process driven by context-specific value-based decision making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104010
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
StatePublished - Sep 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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