Date Thesis Awarded
Honors Thesis -- Open Access
Bachelors of Science (BS)
Fear learning can take place indirectly, by observing others, as well as directly through personal experience. This study aimed to determine whether we could detect indirect – sometimes called vicarious – fear learning in the laboratory, and to examine the influence of trait empathy on the robustness of this learning experience. Deficient empathy features prominently in certain externalizing psychopathologies, and fear learning is theoretically implicated in many psychological disorders, but little research has examined the possible connection between the two. In the present study, we first showed participants (N = 80; Mage = 19.1 years, SD = 2.1; 62.5% white) a video of a stranger (called the demonstrator) undergoing a Pavlovian fear conditioning procedure, receiving shocks and loud noises in the context of one of two conditioned stimuli. Next, we presented participants with those same conditioned stimuli. Correlation analyses showed an association between participants’ autonomic nervous system reactivity while observing the demonstrator receive aversive stimuli and their own reactivity when presented with the same conditioned stimulus associated with shock in the video. Associations between trait empathy (measured with the Interpersonal Reactivity Index and the Affective and Cognitive Measure of Empathy) and the strength of vicarious fear learning were generally small. Our results suggest the independence of the emotional response and trait empathy during the observation of someone’s distress.
Williams, Alexander L., "Vicarious Fear Learning: The Role of Empathy" (2017). Undergraduate Honors Theses. William & Mary. Paper 1127.