Seeing the Whole Picture? Avoided Negative Affect and Processing of Others’ Suffering

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Noticing someone’s pain is the first step to a compassionate response. While past research suggests that the degree to which people want to avoid feeling negative (“avoided negative affect”; ANA) shapes how people respond to someone’s suffering, the present research investigates whether ANA also predicts how people process others’ suffering. In two studies, using complex photographs containing negative aspects (i.e., suffering), we found that the higher people’s ANA, the fewer details of negative aspects they correctly recognized, and the fewer negative words they used in their image descriptions. However, when asked to process negative content, the higher people’s ANA, the more negatively they rated that content. In Study 3, we report cultural differences in people’s sensitivity to notice suffering in an ambiguous image. ANA mediated these cultural differences. Implications for research on compassion are discussed.