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Shared Emotions, Group Membership, and Empathy

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Empathy and group attitude

Sharing of emotions as a member of a group – a fan club, a self-help therapy group, a tight-knit ethnic community – can influence empathy within or towards that group. EU research explored the differences, and the links, between empathy and emotional sharing.

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Empathy is the ability to relate and understand other peoples’ mental and affective states. Related, but clearly different, is emotional sharing that takes place within a closely tied community. The EU-funded SHARE project addressed issues stemming from this distinction. SHARE researchers have provided precise criteria for two or more individuals to share affective states and emotions. Moreover, they explained the structural mechanisms underlying this sharing and have distinguished between different types of levels of emotional sharing. As project coordinator Prof. Dan Zahavi explains: “The fundamental question is how empathic understanding of others’ mental and emotional lives differs from but relates to emotional sharing and how such empathic understanding is positively or negatively modulated by shared emotions and group membership.” A model for ‘sharedness’ The multidimensional model first incorporates distinct phenomena that set empathy, emotional sharing and related but different affective crowd dynamics apart. The latter include emotional contagion – when individuals tend to express and feel emotions similar to those of others, for example when cheering at a football match. Affective entrainment, seen between infants and their caregivers when sharing nursery rhymes or smiling is another phenomenon that has been analysed. Finally, robust emotional sharing can be witnessed when a group is collective grieving over the loss of a common friend or in collective rage about levels of pay in a group of workers. Dr Thomas Szanto, the fellow leading the SHARE research, comments on the distinction between emotional contagion and entrainment, on the one hand, and robust emotional sharing, on the other: “Shared emotions cannot be explained (away) by analysing the aggregation or or the synchronous convergence of individual emotions directed at the same object or event,” he emphasises. Intent to direct the emotion at the object in question is also an important factor. Moreover, as Dr Szanto points out, “there has to be awareness among members of the group that they are sharing emotions.” The model then, positively, offers multidimensional criteria and mechanisms for a robust integration of the affective live of individuals. In the model, different types of shared emotions are also classified according to the subjects, media, and level of emotional sharing. For example, in so-called shared ‘extended’ emotions, individuals are in face-to-face encounters, and voice tones, rhythms as well as bodily movements facilitate shared feeling. Another type of affective sharing is visible when shared emotions emerge in larger-scale communities in which participants are not directly interacting with each other. Here, the interaction is typically socio-technically facilitated – e.g. by the group’s infrastructures or social media. What emerges there “are indirect or mediated ‘collective emotions’, which often become habitualised,” explains Dr Szanto. Feeling rules and self-alienation SHARE researchers also looked at the normativity involved in emotional sharing and the way in which sociocultural ‘feeling norms’ within the group guide the regulation and expression of emotions among members. “I have also analysed the almost completely neglected, but, I contend, crucial and prevalent phenomenon of emotional self-alienation,” Dr Szanto outlines. As he explains in a publication dedicated to this theme, this can happen when a social worker regarded as empathic has to apply rules of the organisation that in some way force behaviour to suggest lack of empathy. ‘Emotional Self-alienation’ has been published in Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Future path for research SHARE research has led to a better understanding of the role of emotions in interpersonal and intergroup encounters. The project’s distinctively philosophical take will also allow for a systematic reassessment of empirical data from the social neurosciences, and yield conceptual adjustments that challenge standard literature. Regarding its yet broader sociocultural impact, the project’s work will contribute to research on group membership-induced biases, such as racism, intercultural differences in emotional behaviour, or ‘emotional dialects’, and the ‘politics’ of affective identity building, particularly relevant in Europe at the moment.


SHARE, empathy, emotion sharing, group membership, affective states, collective

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