Trait Empathy and Sensitivity to Morphed Emotional Faces
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Empathy is a vital component of social intelligence. To understand the construct of empathy, some neurological studies implicate the importance of the frontal lobe, while others propose a shared representations mechanism: viewing emotional facial expressions activates the same brain areas involved in the personal experience of that emotion. We examined the relationship between IRI empathy scores and the interpretation and sensitivity to changes in emotional facial expressions of fear and anger. While there was no relationship between the ability to detect the intensity of fear or anger alone, particular empathy subscales were significant predictors of how individuals interpreted blends of fear and anger. Greater perspective taking and personal distress were associated with an increased likelihood of endorsing a blend as fearful, while greater empathic concern was associated with increased likelihood of endorsing an ambiguous blend as angry. We conclude the IRI measures empathy as a frontal lobe-mediated process, rather than a sensory driven process in deciphering facial expressions. However, the ability to decode facial expressions is just one facet of the complex emotional and cognitive construct of empathy.