Action speaks louder than words: Empathy mainly modulates emotions from theory of mind-laden parts of a story

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Abstract

Narratives are thought to evoke emotions through empathy, which is thought to rely on theory of mind (a.k.a. “mentalizing”). In this study we investigated the extent to which these assumptions hold. Young adults rated their experienced emotional intensity while listening to a narrative and subsequently took an empathy test. We show how empathy correlates well with overall level of experienced intensity. However, no correlation with empathy is found in those parts of the story that received highest intensity ratings across participants. Reverse correlation analysis reveals that these parts contain physical threat scenarios, while parts where empathy score is highly correlated with intensity describe social interaction that can only be understood through mentalizing. This suggests that narratives evoke emotions, both based on “simple” physical contagion (affective empathy) and on complex mentalizing (affective theory of mind) and that these effects may be more or less independent.
Original languageEnglish
JournalScientific Study of Literature
Volume3
Issue1
Pages (from-to)137-153
ISSN2210-4372
Publication statusPublished - 2013

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