New research by Müller and colleagues (2013) introduces another dimension to empathy. Empathy may not be as malleable as previously thought. The authors have shown that the expression of empathy through imitation may be influenced (i.e., moderated) by attractiveness.
Simply put, people seem to empathize more with attractive others than unattractive ones. Specifically, their studies showed that participants were more likely to imitate the behaviors of an attractive person.
Prior research has shown that people empathize more with people who are similar to oneself. People high in empathy have been shown to be more willing to help similar people than people who are different from themselves. Brain studies have also shown group membership to play a significant role in empathy.
A study has shown that brain regions associated with empathy are less activated when observing out-group members’ pain than group members’ pain.
This is due to the fact that group membership can increase the perception of similarity to one another, which in turn increases empathic responses. Emotional closeness plays a role in empathy as well (Müller et al., 2013).
The authors highlight the fact that people automatically evaluate people on the basis of their appearance, and especially attractiveness is an influential physical characteristic. Indeed, research proposes that there may be a universal standard for attractiveness.
The present research examined, whether people high in empathy imitated attractive people more than unattractive ones. In both experiments, the authors found an interaction between empathic concern and imitation that was moderated by attractiveness.
In closing, the higher in empathic concern people were, the more they imitated attractive others through motor mimicry:
We seem to favor attractive people, and the axiom “What is beautiful is good” is substantiated by scientific evidence. Implicitly and immediately someone’s beauty is associated with positivity.” (p. 401)