Learning from observing others in pain


This experiment delves into research on empathy, pain and observational learning. Current research has established that pain-related beliefs can be formed through personal experience and observation (Goubert et al., 2011). We expect that through observing facial and other cues provided, participants are able to learn novel words by pairing them to the model’s reactions. The experiment aims to understand if learning pain-related words is different to learning non-pain-related words and extend upon this by observing participant’s helping behaviours when seeing others in pain. Research suggests that closeness to those in pain and similar past experiences influences our desire to help others with no benefit to ourselves (Grynberg & Konrath, 2020; Nordgren et al., 2011). The study aims to intersect this understanding with empathy research. While it is generally understood that dispositional traits play a role in helping behaviours, literature into which facets of dispositional empathy influences behaviours and how these influences present themselves is divided (Daly, 2018; Davis, 1983). We aim to observe how dispositional empathy traits influence learning (of new pain-related words) and helping behaviours towards those with past experiences of physical or social distress vs. those with no distress. References Daly, A. (2018). The Empathy Mitigation: Empathy and its Impact on Pain Perception and Altruistic Motivation (Master’s Thesis, Abilene Christian University). https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3620-2264 Davis, M. H. (1983). The effects of dispositional empathy on emotional reactions and helping: A multidimensional approach. Journal of personality, 51(2), 167-184. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1983.tb00860.x Goubert, L., Vlaeyen, J. W., Crombez, G., & Craig, K. D. (2011). Learning about pain from others: an observational learning account. The Journal of Pain, 12(2), 167-174. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2010.10.001 Grynberg, D., & Konrath, S. (2020). The closer you feel, the more you care: Positive associations between closeness, pain intensity rating, empathic concern and personal distress to someone in pain. Acta Psychologica, 210, 103175. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2020.103175 Nordgren, L. F., Banas, K., & MacDonald, G. (2011). Empathy gaps for social pain: Why people underestimate the pain of social suffering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 120–128. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020938

Research Questions / Hypotheses

The purpose of this project is to observe people’s word learning capabilities when faced with others in pain through a word learning paradigm. We investigate the role of dispositional empathy - which is how well we can relate to, and understand another person’s emotional experiences - in influencing how an individual might help others. Our main research question is: Do participants with higher levels of dispositional empathy learn better (in this case, words) from the experience of someone else in pain? Our main hypotheses are: a) We hypothesise that there will be a correlation between pain word learning and empathy levels, where participants with higher empathy levels will show better performance on word learning through observation (higher accuracy and lower reaction times). b) It is hypothesised that participants will show better performance (faster response times and accuracy) to identifying and prescribing treatments when they have additional information about the model in the videos (e.g., that the model has had a history of physical or social distress, vs. no history of distress).


In total, 50 first-year undergraduate students at the University of Melbourne completed our experiment; no exclusions were applied.


The study consisted of a questionnaire and experimental conditions. Participants completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) and completed three stages of tasks where they associated pseudo-words (called ‘creams’ in the experiment) with specific reactions to hot/cold sensations. Participants would watch videos of four models reacting to the application of said creams, and determine whether they could recognise the cream applied, and prescribe the cream most relevant to alleviating their pain. During the trials, participants would view the pseudo-word, a thermometer indicating what type of sensation the models are experiencing (hot/cold), and a reaction from the model. Participants were also given histories on three out of the four models, providing a glimpse into some of their background and experiences. These histories were adapted from DeWall & Baumeister’s (2006) study, ‘Alone but Feeling No Pain: Effects of Social Exclusion on Physical Pain Tolerance and Pain Threshold, Affective Forecasting, and Interpersonal Empathy’ and were intended to evoke empathy in the participants. This was a minor concealment as participants were not told the histories were fictional but were later disclosed in the debriefing statement.


As the experiment only competed this week, data analysis is still in progress. Overall, we will use reaction times for recognition of form and meaning of painful and non-painful words tested with each of the phases of the experiment, and compare them directly, taking into account participants sex and level of empathy (a regression model will be applied). We expect the main effect of pain (faster reaction times to painful vs. non-painful words) and an interaction between the effect of pain and empathy (faster reaction times in more empathic participants). We further expect these to be affected by the knowledge of models' histories (which are physical, social, no pain or no background information).


We anticipate that this research will provide some understanding on how knowledge of patients can influence care in clinical settings. We also expect it to broaden our understanding of how dispositional empathy traits, particularly one’s ability to regulate personal distress and empathic concern, is an important skill to have when faced with patients experiencing physical or mental pain. We will plan to make the findings available through academic talks and research publications.