Feelings of warmth, tenderness and sympathy can predict aggressive behaviours, a new study has found.
Two neurohormones – oxytocin and vasopressin – appear to be among the mechanisms contributing to the counterintuitive response, said researchers from University at Buffalo.
Michael J Poulin, associate professor of psychology, and colleagues conducted a two-part study consisting of a survey and an experiment.
“The results of both indicate that the feelings we broadly call empathic concern, or compassion, can predict aggression on behalf of those in need,” said Poulin.
The survey asked people to report on someone close to them and explain how that person was threatened by a third-party. Then, participants described their emotions and reaction to the situation.
People aggressing on behalf of others has been widely researched, but researchers said the idea that empathy can drive aggression absent of provocation or injustice is quite novel.
In the experiment, participants provided a saliva sample in order to measure neurohormone levels, then heard a compassion-evoking story about someone they never met, a fictional participant who was supposedly in another room with a second fictional participant.
The actual participants were informed that the pair in the other room, strangers to each other, who were to take a math test, would be exposed to a painful but harmless stimulus (hot sauce) to measure the effects of physical pain on performance.
During the test, the real subject had a choice on how much of a painful stimulus they would provide to the third party who was competing with the person they had compassion toward.
“The results of both the survey and the experiment indicate that the feelings we have when other people are in need, what we broadly call empathic concern or compassion, can predict aggression on behalf of those in need,” said Poulin.
“In situations where we care about someone very much, as humans, we were motivated to benefit them, but if there is someone else in the way, we may do things to harm that third party,” Poulin said.
The reaction is not because the third party has done anything wrong.
Consider parents who in order to benefit their child in competition might do something destructive to another challenger, Poulin said, or soldiers who in battle think more of protecting a comrade than fighting against a broader national threat.
“Our study adds that our response is because of love or compassion for those we care about,” he said.
The study is published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.