Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2011

Document Type



Psychology & Neuroscience

First Advisor

Irene Blair, PhD

Second Advisor

Leaf Van Boven, PhD


Prior research shows that people who are in neutral emotional states underestimate the impact of emotional arousal on their own and others’ behavior, an emotional empathy gap. I investigated empathy gaps in judgments of and behavior regarding painful experiences, for both oneself and another person. In two studies, participants completed a sample experience of a Cold Pressor Test (CPT), submerging their hand in ice-cold water for 0, 5, 30, or 90 seconds. Participants in Study 1 then predicted the pain they or others would feel during future CPTs of varying intervals (from 15-sec to 3-min) and indicated how much money they (or others) would have to be paid to complete each interval of a CPT. In study 2, participants made a series of behavioral decisions about completing a 2 minute CPT for $10. Study 1 provided evidence for both interpersonal (by comparing self and other ratings) and intrapersonal (by comparing 30-sec experience ratings and 0-sec experience ratings) empathy gaps in that participants rated a future CPT as more painful and requiring more compensation for themselves or when they had previously completed a 30-sec sample experience. In Study 2, participants who attempted a 90-second CPT sample experience were able to make more rational choices about a future CPT, demonstrating smaller intrapersonal empathy gaps after a highly salient pain experience. These results suggest that people experience emotional empathy gaps in predictions of pain and in their behavioral choices about a future painful experience.