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Personal distress is an aversive, self-focused emotional reaction (e.g., anxiety, worry, discomfort) to the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition. This negative affective state often occurs as a result of emotional contagion when there is confusion between self and other. Unlike empathy, personal distress has not to be congruent with the other’s state, and often leads to a self-oriented, egoistic reaction to reduce it, by withdrawing from the stressor, for example, thereby decreasing the likelihood of prosocial behavior.[1] There is evidence that sympathy and personal distress are subjectively different[2], have different somatic and physiological correlates,[3] and relate differently to prosocial behavior.[4]

Work in social neuroscience, using functional neuroimaging, shows that the perception of another individual in pain results, in the observer, in the activation of the neural network involved in the processing of firsthand experience of pain. This intimate overlap between the neural circuits responsible for our ability to perceive the pain of others and those underlying our own self-experience of pain can lead to personal distress and can possibly be detrimental to empathic concern. Personal distress may even result in a more egoistic motivation to reduce it, by withdrawing from the stressor, for example, thereby decreasing the likelihood of prosocial behavior.[5]


See also

Further readings

  • Hodges, S.D., & Klein, K.J.K. (2001). Regulating the costs of empathy: the price of being human. Journal of Socio-Economics, 30, 437-452.
  • Eisenberg, N., & Strayer, J. (1987). Empathy and its Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. ^ Tice, D.M., Bratslavsky, E., & Baumeister, R.F. (2001). Emotional distress regulation takes precedence over impulse control: If you feel bad, do it! Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 53-67.
  2. ^ Batson, C. D., etal. (1987). Five studies testing two new egoistic alternatives to the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 52-77
  3. ^ Eisenberg, N., McCreath, H., & Ahn, R. (1988). Vicarious emotional responsiveness and prosocial behavior: their interrelations in young children. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 298-311.
  4. ^ Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 91-1 19.
  5. ^ Decety, J., & Lamm, C. (2009). Empathy versus personal distress - Recent evidence from social neuroscience. In J. Decety and W. Ickes (Eds.), The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (pp. 199-213). Cambridge: MIT press.


  • Davis, M. H. (1996). Empathy: A Social-Psychological Approach. Westview.
  • Decety, J., & Ickes, W. (2009). The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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