Limited evidence is available about factors influencing observers' anticipatory emotional responses to another's pain. We investigated fear and distress towards the threat of pain in others, and the moderating role of observers' psychopathic traits and catastrophizing about their own or others' pain. Thirty-six dyads of healthy participants were randomly assigned to either the role of observer or observed participant. Both participants were instructed that 1 colored slide (blue or yellow) signalled that a pain stimulus could possibly be delivered to the observed participant (=pain signal), whereas no pain stimulus would be delivered when a differently colored slide was presented (=safety signal). Observers' self-reported fear, fear-potentiated startle, and corrugator electromyography activity during pain and safety signals were measured. Furthermore, observers rated the presence of pain after each trial allowing assessment of observers' perceptual sensitivity to others' pain. Results indicated that self-reported fear, fear-potentiated startle, and corrugator electromyography activity were augmented during pain signals compared to safety signals. Moreover, these negative emotional responses were heightened in observers highly catastrophizing about others' pain, but reduced in observers with heightened psychopathic traits. Psychopathic traits were also related with a diminished perceptual sensitivity to others' pain. The results are discussed in light of affective-motivational perspectives on pain. Perspective: This study investigated observers' negative emotional responses in anticipation of pain in another, and the moderating role of observers' psychopathic traits and pain catastrophizing. Knowledge about characteristics influencing observers' emotional response to others' pain may provide insight into why observers engage in particular behaviors when faced with another in pain.
- Observational learning
- observers' sensitivity
- psychophysiological responses
- pain catastrophizing