Aggression has been linked to empathy and emotions (e.g., guilt) in cross-sectional studies. The purpose of this experiment was to examine the effects of empathy on emotional reactions to aggression and the role of guilt in the empathy–aggression relationship. Seventy-one undergraduate sport and exercise science students with a mean age of 19.56 (SD = 1.94) years were randomly assigned to either a high- or a low-empathy group. We experimentally manipulated empathy using perspective taking instructions and examined the following: (a) participants’ emotional reactions to images of aggressive acts; (b) their reported likelihood to aggress in a hypothetical sport situation; and (c) the extent to which they anticipated feeling guilt if they were to engage in an aggressive act. Participants in the high-empathy group experienced stronger negative emotional reactions to images of aggressive acts and reported lower likelihood to aggress than did those in the low-empathy group. Anticipated guilt partially mediated the effects of empathy on reported likelihood to aggress. Our findings suggest that empathy may help reduce aggressive behavior and highlight the potential mediating role of guilt.
Nicholas Stanger, Maria Kavussanu, and Christopher Ring are with the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, U.K.