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Sharing others' emotions: The reactive hypothesis

Dr. Ophelia Deroy

Thursday, November 15, 2012, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

University of London, Centre for the Study of the Senses

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It is widely accepted that humans participate in others’ emotional life in a way which cannot be reduced either to emotional contagion or to other forms of mental state attributions. In other terms, we can share or relate to someone’s sadness in a way which is neither purely causal (ie. not by just getting affected by their cries) nor simply attributive (ie. by merely forming the belief that they are sad).  The investigation and understanding of this emotional engagement has focused on empathetic cases, where we are for instance said to ‘feel sad for others’. In such cases, the observation or occurrence of an emotion causes us to be in a similar emotional state which we can ascribe to someone else (e.g. Vignemont & Jacob, 2012).

Here i will argue that similarity of feeling is not necessary for relating to someone’s feelings in a way which is neither simply causal nor attributive. This suggests that  empathetic cases are rare or idealized cases of how we participate or relate to other people’s emotions. In most cases, the observer is herself in a certain emotional state, and the observation or occurrence of an emotion in someone else modifies the way she is feeling without necessarily making the resulting state similar to the other’s. This emotional change can still count as caused by the other’s emotion and attributed to the other.

Dr. Ophelia Deroy