Findings from the current study suggest that empathy for social pain may be quite different from empathy for physical pain. For example, in both the current study with early adolescents and the previous study on empathy for social exclusion with adults (Masten, Morelli, & Eisenberger
, under review), there was evidence of differential neural activity in the mentalizing network, but no evidence of social pain-related neural activity, when comparing observed exclusion to observed inclusion. This type of activity in mentalizing regions has not been consistently found in studies examining physical pain, which have focused primarily on pain-related regions (e.g., Singer et al., 2004
; Singer et al., 2006
; Jackson, Bruney, Meltzoff, & Decety, 2005
; Botvinick et al., 2005
; Morrison, Lloyd, Di Pellegrino, & Roberts, 2004
; Decety, Michalska, & Akitsuki, 2008
; see Singer, 2006
and Jackson, Rainville, & Decety, 2006
for reviews). This could suggest that empathy for social situations is less automatic than empathy for physical pain, and that observing negative social situations may require individuals to think more about why the situation happened and the intentions of those involved, rather than just experiencing an immediate aversive response.
Next, although the current study did not directly compare adults’ and early adolescents’ experiences of empathy during social exclusion, it is likely that there are developmental differences in how individuals experience empathy for social situations. One possibility is that adults and early adolescents could respond to victims of exclusion differently because of a difference in the meaning and frequency of these occurrences. For example, early adolescents may observe peer rejection on a daily basis, and may view these occurrences as mainstream and common. They may even feel that it is “uncool” to try to interfere, or that it may jeopardize their own peer status. Thus, their empathic ability may have little bearing on their actions in these situations, and instead feeling actual pain or distress (e.g., as evidenced by greater activation in pain/affective neural regions) might drive subsequent prosocial behaviors. In contrast, adults who tend to feel greater empathy for others may consistently make efforts to help or support victims of exclusion when it overtly occurs because exclusion is no longer accepted as a common, unavoidable part of life. In other words, adults may generally view social exclusion as unacceptable and unfair, whereas early adolescents may believe that these distressing occurrences are unavoidable and it is usually better not to interfere.
It would be useful for future studies to directly compare adults’ and adolescents’ empathy for social exclusion, as well as to take into account other developmentally-relevant biological factors such as pubertal status, pubertal timing, and increasing levels of sex hormones during the adolescent period. Examining these types of factors will help further clarify the developmental implications of adolescents’ neural responses to empathy for social experiences, and extend our knowledge about how social exclusion differentially impacts the daily lives of adolescents and adults. In addition, it would be useful for future studies to include larger samples of adolescents that would enable the examination of gender differences in the neural correlates of empathy for social exclusion. While the current sample size was too small to permit meaningful tests of differential neural processing among boys and girls, this would likely be a fruitful avenue for future research given known biological and psychosocial differences between boys and girls at this age.
As a whole, findings from the current study contribute to our understanding of how youth respond in situations where they witness peer rejection, and extend the current empathy literature by providing new information about how neural mechanisms of empathy may influence prosocial behavior and impact daily interactions with peers during early adolescence. Our hope is that future neuroimaging studies will continue to examine empathy for social situations among adolescents, and potentially make new discoveries about how these experiences impact adolescents social development as well as the cognitive and affective mechanisms that drive their interactions with others.