Dreading the pain of others? Altruistic responses to others' pain underestimate dread

Giles W. Story, Rony Chowdhury, Zeb Kurth-Nelson, Molly Crockett, Ivo Vlaev, Ara Darzi, Raymond J. Dolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A dislike of waiting for pain, aptly termed ‘dread’, is so great that people will increase pain to avoid delaying it. However, despite many accounts of altruistic responses to pain in others, no previous studies have tested whether people take delay into account when attempting to ameliorate others' pain. We examined the impact of delay in 2 experiments where participants (total N = 130) specified the intensity and delay of pain either for themselves or another person. Participants were willing to increase the experimental pain of another participant to avoid delaying it, indicative of dread, though did so to a lesser extent than was the case for their own pain. We observed a similar attenuation in dread when participants chose the timing of a hypothetical painful medical treatment for a close friend or relative, but no such attenuation when participants chose for a more distant acquaintance. A model in which altruism is biased to privilege pain intensity over the dread of pain parsimoniously accounts for these findings. We refer to this underestimation of others' dread as a ‘Dread Empathy Gap’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)359-378
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • altruism
  • discounting
  • dread
  • empathy
  • pain
  • social


Dive into the research topics of 'Dreading the pain of others? Altruistic responses to others' pain underestimate dread'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this