Imaging, empathy, and causal attribution

Susan T. Fiske, Shelley E. Taylor, Nancy L. Etcoff, Jessica K. Laufer

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34 Scopus citations


Three studies were conducted to test whether imagery accounts for the effects of empathy on attributions, that is, whether attributers construct and scan a mental image of social scenarios the same way that actual participants scan a real environment. According to this interpretation, attributers "see" the world as the participant does and make vicarious attributions. An alternative interpretation holds that subjects base vicarious attributions on recreating the motivations and affect of the actor, so that imaging is irrelevant to empathy and attributions. In the first study, subjects who imagined a story from the perspective of a particular character later showed differential recall of story details as a function of role, but not differential attributions. In Experiment 2, role-taking subjects showed clear effects of imaged perspective on recall for story details, but no effects on attributions of causality for an accident. Further, recall and attribution were uncorrelated. In the last study, empathy and imagery role-taking instructions produced independent effects: imagers showed pronounced perspective-relevant recall and empathizers did not. Neither showed unambiguous vicarious attributions. Recall and attribution were again uncorrelated. These studies suggest that the imagery explanation of empathy effects is untenable, and imply that the recall of perspective-relevant details is unlikely to mediate attributions of causality in imaginary scenarios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)356-377
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1979

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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