Attentional mechanisms in the generation of sympathy
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Empathic responses, such as sympathy towards others,are a key ingredient in the decision to provide help to those in need. The determinants of empathic responses are usually thought to be the vividness, similarity, and proximity of the victim. However, recent research highlights the role that attention plays in the generation of feelings. We expanded on this idea by investigating whether sympathy depends on cognitive mechanisms such as attention. In two studies we found that sympathy responses were lower and reaction times were longer when targets were presented with distractors. In addition, online sympathy judgments that allow attentional focusing on a target lead to greater affective responses than judgements made from memory. We conclude that attention is an ingredient in the generation of sympathy, and discuss implications for research on prosocial behavior and the interaction between attention and emotions.