Alexander Williams

By William & Mary

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Vicarious Fear Learning: The Role of Empathy 

As social animals, humans learn readily from each other. By observing others we can gain insight into their affective states, which can carry important social information. Empathy should be central in this process; yet, little research has examined the connection between empathy and social learning. I will study a phenomenon related to social learning called vicarious fear learning. This phenomenon occurs when a person acquires a fear of a neutral object through observing another person’s experience with it. In my project, participants will complete questionnaires related to important psychological characteristics, including empathy. Next, they will watch a video of other people developing a fear of a neutral object through pairing with the sound of a woman shrieking. Lastly, we will present participants with that same object and monitor their expressed fear through physiological measures like heart rate. To ensure that social learning is the only type of learning at play, participants will never experience the sound of a woman shrieking through headphones. We anticipate findings reflecting the most pronounced physiological data for individuals who possess high trait empathy. This research will deepen our understanding of the interaction between psychological traits, physiological components of the emotional response, and social learning.

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