What drives the (un)empathic bystander to intervene? Insights from eye tracking

Susann Fiedler, Yang Hu, Bernd Weber

Publication: Scientific journalJournal articlepeer-review


Norm violations (e.g., unfair transgressions) are often met with punishment even by people who are not directly affected. However, punishing a transgressor is not the only option for a bystander to restore justice. Empathic concerns may dictate instead to give a helping hand to a victim. Using a pre‐registered, fully incentivized eye‐tracking study (N = 47), we investigated the cognitive mechanism linking bystanders’ empathic concern and justice‐restoring intervention behaviour. The results show that not only the decision to intervene (i.e., either costly compensating the victim or punishing the transgressor) but also the attention directed towards a victim’s payoffs (i.e., measured by the proportion of fixations) during the decision‐making period systematically varied with the individual level of empathic concern. Exploring this link further, we additionally instructed participants to focus on specific components of the norm violation, namely the (un)fair conduct of the offender or the victim's feelings. Surprisingly, highly empathic bystanders were more likely to punish the offender when the norm violation was highlighted. However, we did not observe the modulation of the instructed focus on the link between gaze‐based measures and empathic concern. Overall, these results provide initial evidence about the interacting impact of empathic concern as well as the focus on specific components of the norm violation when bystanders respond to unfair transgressions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)733 - 751
JournalBritish Journal of Social Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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