About the Project SHARE – University of Copenhagen

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About the project SHARE

Shared emotions are not only a fundamental building block of human sociality. Emotional sharing can also negatively affect social encounters, and even be a major source of divide and prejudice. Arguably, shared emotions lie at the very formation and maintenance of many small- and large-scale groups, ranging from grieving families, to cheering fan clubs and religious sects, or, to mention a notorious example, ‘shocked nations’. And yet, emotional sharing, if too uniform or cohesive, may distort or even impede interpersonal and intergroup understanding. To be sure, this paradox at the heart of our social fabric is rather familiar and has been well studied in social identification theory. However, recent years have witnessed significant controversy among social philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists on whether affective or emotional sharing is necessary for empathy, i.e., our ability to experience and understand the mental life of others. Similarly, there is a growing number of philosophers investigating whether a collective of individuals can properly speaking ‘share’ any emotions in the first place.

Surprisingly, two strongly related issues have received hardly any attention and, if so, they have been dealt with almost exclusively in the social neurosciences: the first issue concerns whether and to what extent group membership and collective emotions affect interpersonal understanding; the second concerns whether individuals may collectively engage in empathy and, conversely, whether individuals may collectively be targets of empathy.

Now, according to a dominant view in current social cognition research, empathy must be distinguished from purely cognitive perspective taking, or mindreading. Empathy, then, is characterized as being ‘caused by sharing the emotions of another person’, or as the ‘simulation of the feelings of others’ (Hein & Singer 2008). In a similar vein, it has been argued that empathy is an affective state and requires ‘interpersonal similarity’ (De Vignemont & Jacob 2012). Meanwhile, authors drawing on the phenomenological tradition (esp. on Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein, Max Scheler, Alfred Schütz, or Gerda Walther) have questioned this assumption (e.g., Zahavi 2014). They claim that, in empathy, one does not necessarily share any emotions. While I agree with this phenomenological line of reasoning, and hold that sharing emotions and empathizing are indeed two distinct social processes, I still believe that they are interlinked by various social-psychological dynamics. Moreover, there is strong empirical support for this hypothesis.

SHARE aims at phenomenologically and conceptually clarifying these interconnections. In particular, the project will center around the following three issues:

  1. The Shared Emotions Issue: What exactly is shared in shared emotions (e.g., affective qualities, social appraisal patterns, valued objects)? Are shared emotions reducible to aggregates of individual emotions? How does emotional sharing differ from emotional contagion, and similar affective crowd dynamics? What types of shared emotions are there, according to the subject and level of emotional sharing?
     
  2. The Group-Membership and Empathy Issue: How do group membership and shared emotions modulate empathy, emotional recognition and regulation?
       
  3. The Interactive and Collective Empathy Issue: How can individuals interact, or even collectively perform empathy? Conversely, can individuals collectively be targets of empathy (e.g., qua victims of genocide, or of race, class, gender, or any other minority-status, driven social marginalization)? What happens in cases of inter-group empathy (e.g., between members of political parties)?

In addressing these issues, SHARE aims not only at a better understanding of the role of emotions in interpersonal and intergroup encounters. Moreover, the project’s distinctively philosophical take will allow for a systematic reassessment of empirical data from the social neurosciences and social psychology, and yield conceptual adjustments that challenge standard literature. Regarding its yet broader socio-cultural impact, the project will contribute to research on group membership induced negative biases, such as research on racism, intercultural differences in emotional behaviour, or ‘emotional dialects’, and the ‘politics’ of identity-building.

Postdoc Thomas Szanto