The causal role of affect sharing in driving vicarious fear learning

PLoS One. 2022 Nov 18;17(11):e0277793. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0277793. eCollection 2022.


Vicarious learning, i.e. learning through observing others rather than through one's own experiences, is an integral skill of social species. The aim of this study was to assess the causal role of affect sharing, an important aspect of empathy, in vicarious fear learning. N = 39 participants completed a vicarious Pavlovian fear conditioning paradigm. In the learning stage, they watched another person-the demonstrator-responding with distress when receiving electric shocks to a color cue (conditioned stimulus; CS+; a different color served as CS-). In the subsequent test stage, an increased skin conductance response (SCR) to the CS+ presented in the absence of the demonstrator indexed vicarious fear learning. Each participant completed this paradigm under two different hypnotic suggestions, which were administered to induce high or low affect sharing with the demonstrator in the learning stage, following a counterbalanced within-subject design. In the learning stage, high affect sharing resulted in stronger unconditioned SCR, increased eye gaze toward the demonstrator's face, and higher self-reported unpleasantness while witnessing the demonstrator's distress. In the test stage, participants showed a stronger conditioned fear response (SCR) when they had learned under high, compared to low, affect sharing. In contrast, participants' declarative memory of how many shocks the demonstrator had received with each cue was not influenced by the affect sharing manipulation. These findings demonstrate that affect sharing is involved in enhancing vicarious fear learning, and thus advance our understanding of the role of empathy, and more generally emotion, in social observational learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Conditioning, Classical* / physiology
  • Empathy
  • Fear* / psychology
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology

Grants and funding

Open access funding provided by University of Vienna.