Study: People have decreased empathy for those with attractive partners

Recent research suggests that you will feel less empathy for someone of the same sex who has an attractive partner, according to a study published in the Cognitive Science section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Both males and females have a desire to date highly attractive partners, as physical attractiveness is linked to youth, fertility, and socioeconomic factors such as income. There is often competition between those of the same sex for partners. This competition can affect people’s attitudes. The current research examined the impact of intrasexual competition on empathy, which refers to the ability to understand and experience the emotional states of another person, as well as the underlying neural mechanisms of it. Recent studies have shown that imagining others’ pain is similar to experiencing that pain first hand in terms of neural activity. Empathetic responses are also thought to be regulated by previous attitudes toward another person. For example, a person who blamed targets for contracting AIDS was less likely to feel empathy for them.

Twenty participants, twelve of which were female, were recruited from a university setting. Participants were shown two couples during an functional MRI scan. The first couple was one of two possible plain (neither attractive nor unattractive), same-sex models paired with the attractive opposite-sex model. The same-sex model of this couple was shown to be in a painful situation (for example, a pair of scissors about to cut his or her ear). The second couple was composed of a different plain same-sex model paired with one of the two plain opposite-sex models.

This same-sex model would not necessarily be in a painful situation, but one that is similar to the painful situation (to continue with the example, scissors closed and resting on the ear). Participants were shown four photos per couple. Participants were also asked how much pain they felt, as well as to rate the attractiveness of and enviousness toward the empathy targets, both with a plain partner and an attractive partner.

Results showed that participants reported lower empathy and higher envy for the same-sex model with an attractive partner, rather than the same-sex model with a plain partner. Different parts of the brain displayed different levels of activity when viewing a painful versus a non-painful situation. The areas of the brain involved in empathy were more active for those with a plain partner, confirming what the participants reported. These findings indicate intra-sexual competition can influence attitudes toward same-sex rivals, and also regulate empathetic responses to suffering.

However, it is important to note that the study only used twenty participants, which is a limitation on the study. Also, the participants were recruited from a university community, with an average age of 21. The researchers also did not take into account the relationship status or sexual orientation of their participants as well. The amount of participants, age, relationship status, and sexuality could have had an impact on the results of this study. Future research should take these variables into account to help provide a fuller picture of empathy and sexual competition.