Skin Conductance Response to the Pain of Others Predicts Later Costly Helping


People show autonomic responses when they empathize with the suffering of another person. However, little is known about how these autonomic changes are related to prosocial behavior. We measured skin conductance responses (SCRs) and affect ratings in participants while either receiving painful stimulation themselves, or observing pain being inflicted on another person. In a later session, they could prevent the infliction of pain in the other by choosing to endure pain themselves. Our results show that the strength of empathy-related vicarious skin conductance responses predicts later costly helping. Moreover, the higher the match between SCR magnitudes during the observation of pain in others and SCR magnitude during self pain, the more likely a person is to engage in costly helping. We conclude that prosocial motivation is fostered by the strength of the vicarious autonomic response as well as its match with first-hand autonomic experience.