Groups of people in pain evoke our empathic reactions. Yet how does one empathize with a group? Here, we aim to identify psychological mechanisms that underlie empathic reactions to groups. We theorize that because empathy is an egocentric process routed through the self, people are strongly attuned to the impact on each individual, and less so to the number of individuals affected. In five pre-registered experiments, involving different types of stimuli and valences of the outcomes, we repeatedly find that participants' level of empathy depends on the pain experienced by each individual, but not on the number of individuals in the group. The experiments support our hypothesis. They also add to alternative explanations such as psychophysical numbing and strategic regulation of negative emotions, providing valuable insights into the phenomenon of scope insensitivity. The findings also bear implications for the ongoing debate on the role of empathy in public policy decisions.
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- Perspective taking
- Scope insensitivity