Previous neuroimaging studies on empathy have not clearly identified neural systems that support the three components of empathy: affective congruence, perspective-taking, and prosocial motivation. These limitations stem from a focus on a single emotion per study, minimal variation in amount of social context provided, and lack of prosocial motivation assessment. In the current investigation, 32 participants completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging session assessing empathic responses to individuals experiencing painful, anxious, and happy events that varied in valence and amount of social context provided. They also completed a 14-day experience sampling survey that assessed real-world helping behaviors. The results demonstrate that empathy for positive and negative emotions selectively activates regions associated with positive and negative affect, respectively. In addition, the mirror system was more active during empathy for context-independent events (pain), whereas the mentalizing system was more active during empathy for context-dependent events (anxiety, happiness). Finally, the septal area, previously linked to prosocial motivation, was the only region that was commonly activated across empathy for pain, anxiety, and happiness. Septal activity during each of these empathic experiences was predictive of daily helping. These findings suggest that empathy has multiple input pathways, produces affect-congruent activations, and results in septally mediated prosocial motivation.
empathy; prosocial behavior; septal area
The present study explored early personality and environmental predictors of the development of young children’s empathy, as well as relations of empathy to prosocial behavior with peers at a later age. How children manage their own emotions and behaviors when under stress—their ego-resiliency—would be expected to affect their responses to others’ emotions. Also, socialization experiences, such as the quality of parenting behaviors, have been associated with individual differences in empathy-related responding. We examined whether mothers’ emotion socialization practices and children’s ego-resiliency at 18 months predicted initial levels and change in empathy across five time points (24, 30, 42, 48, and 54 months; N = 242), and whether empathy in turn predicted prosocial behavior with peers at 72/84 months of age. Ego-resiliency and mothers’ expressive encouragement both uniquely predicted the intercept of empathy. Boys’ empathy was lower than girls’ but improved more with age. Initial levels and growth of empathy positively predicted later prosocial behavior. Children’s ego-resiliency predicted the slope of empathy at near significance (p = .054). We also found that the intercept of empathy mediated the relation between ego-resiliency and prosocial behavior as well as the relation between mothers’ expressive encouragement and prosocial behavior. These findings suggest that both parenting and personality characteristics are relevant to the development of empathy during early childhood and might contribute to children’s later prosocial behavior with peers.
empathy; ego-resiliency; parenting; prosocial behavior; early childhood
Links among concurrent and longitudinal changes in pubertal development and empathic ability from age 10 to 13 and neural responses while witnessing peer rejection at age 13 were examined in 16 participants. More advanced pubertal development at age 13, and greater longitudinal increases in pubertal development, related to increased activity in regions underlying cognitive aspects of empathy. Likewise, at age 13 greater perspective taking related to activity in cognitive empathy-related regions; however, affective components of empathy (empathic concern and personal distress) were additionally associated with activity in affective pain-related regions. Longitudinal increases in empathic ability related to cognitive and affective empathy-related circuitry. Findings provide preliminary evidence that physical and cognitive-emotional development relate to adolescents’ neural responses when witnessing peer rejection.
The second year of life marks the beginning of empathic responsiveness to others’ distress, a hallmark of human interaction. We examined the role of social understanding (self-other understanding and emotion understanding) and empathic disposition in individual differences in 12- to 24-month olds’ responses to mothers’ and an unfamiliar infant peer’s distress (N = 71). Results reveal associations between empathic responsiveness to distressed mother and crying infant peer, suggesting that individual differences in prosocial motivation may exist right from the outset, when the ability to generate an empathic, prosocial response first emerges. We further found that above and beyond such dispositional characteristics (and age), children with more advanced social understanding were more empathically responsive to a peer’s distress. However, responses to mothers’ distress were explained by children’s empathic disposition only, and not by their social understanding. Thus, as early as the second year of life some children are dispositionally more inclined to empathy regardless of who is in distress, whether mother or peer. At the same time, emotion understanding and self-other understanding appear to be especially important for explaining individual differences in young children’s empathic responsiveness to a peer’s distress.
Why do we self-sacrifice to help others in distress? Two competing theories have emerged, one suggesting that prosocial behavior is primarily motivated by feelings of empathic other-oriented concern, the other that we help mainly because we are egoistically focused on reducing our own discomfort. Here we explore the relationship between costly altruism and these two sub-processes of empathy, specifically drawing on the caregiving model to test the theory that trait empathic concern (e.g. general tendency to have sympathy for another) and trait personal distress (e.g. predisposition to experiencing aversive arousal states) may differentially drive altruistic behavior. We find that trait empathic concern – and not trait personal distress – motivates costly altruism, and this relationship is supported by activity in the ventral tegmental area, caudate and subgenual anterior cingulate, key regions for promoting social attachment and caregiving. Together, this data helps identify the behavioral and neural mechanisms motivating costly altruism, while demonstrating that individual differences in empathic concern-related brain responses can predict real prosocial choice.
•Trait empathic concern predicts altruistic action.•State distress, but not trait distress, predicts altruistic action.•A network comprised of VTA, caudate and sgACC support other-oriented prosocial decisions.•Neural evidence supporting caregiving model: social reward and attachment guides altruism.
Moral; Caudate; Subgenual ACC; VTA; Empathy; Altruism; Distress
Perceiving others in pain generally leads to empathic concern, consisting of both emotional and cognitive processes. Empathy deficits have been considered as an element contributing to social difficulties in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging and short video clips of facial expressions of people experiencing pain to examine the neural substrates underlying the spontaneous empathic response to pain in autism. Thirty-eight adolescents and adults of normal intelligence diagnosed with ASD and 35 matched controls participated in the study. In contrast to general assumptions, we found no significant differences in brain activation between ASD individuals and controls during the perception of pain experienced by others. Both groups showed similar levels of activation in areas associated with pain sharing, evidencing the presence of emotional empathy and emotional contagion in participants with autism as well as in controls. Differences between groups could be observed at a more liberal statistical threshold, and revealed increased activations in areas involved in cognitive reappraisal in ASD participants compared with controls. Scores of emotional empathy were positively correlated with brain activation in areas involved in embodiment of pain in ASD group only. Our findings show that simulation mechanisms involved in emotional empathy are preserved in high-functioning individuals with autism, and suggest that increased reappraisal may have a role in their apparent lack of caring behavior.
autism; emotion perception; fMRI; pain
Humans observe various peoples’ social suffering throughout their lives, but it is unknown whether the same brain mechanisms respond to people we are close to and strangers’ social suffering. To address this question, we had participant’s complete functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while observing a friend and stranger experience social exclusion. Observing a friend’s exclusion activated affective pain regions associated with the direct (i.e. firsthand) experience of exclusion [dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and insula], and this activation correlated with self-reported self-other overlap with the friend. Alternatively, observing a stranger’s exclusion activated regions associated with thinking about the traits, mental states and intentions of others [‘mentalizing’; dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), precuneus, and temporal pole]. Comparing activation from observing friend’s vs stranger’s exclusion showed increased activation in brain regions associated with the firsthand experience of exclusion (dACC and anterior insula) and with thinking about the self [medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC)]. Finally, functional connectivity analyses demonstrated that MPFC and affective pain regions activated in concert during empathy for friends, but not strangers. These results suggest empathy for friends’ social suffering relies on emotion sharing and self-processing mechanisms, whereas empathy for strangers’ social suffering may rely more heavily on mentalizing systems.
empathy; social pain; anterior cingulate cortex; medial prefrontal cortex
There is a growing interest for the determinants of human choice behavior in social settings. Upon initial contact, investment choices in social settings can be inherently risky, as the degree to which the other person will reciprocate is unknown. Nevertheless, people have been shown to exhibit prosocial behavior even in one-shot laboratory settings where all interaction has been taken away. A logical step has been to link such behavior to trait empathy-related neurobiological networks. However, as a social interaction unfolds, the degree of uncertainty with respect to the expected payoff of choice behavior may change as a function of the interaction. Here we attempt to capture this factor. We show that the interpersonal tie one develops with another person during interaction – rather than trait empathy – motivates investment in a public good that is shared with an anonymous interaction partner. We examined how individual differences in trait empathy and interpersonal ties modulate neural responses to imposed monetary sharing. After, but not before interaction in a public good game, sharing prompted activation of neural systems associated with reward (striatum), empathy (anterior insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) as well as altruism, and social significance [posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)]. Although these activations could be linked to both empathy and interpersonal ties, only tie-related pSTS activation predicted prosocial behavior during subsequent interaction, suggesting a neural substrate for keeping track of social relevance.
interpersonal ties; social ties; empathy; social decision-making; public good game; pSTS; ACC; insula
Difficulties in social cognition are well recognized in individuals with autism spectrum conditions (henceforth ‘autism’). Here we focus on one crucial aspect of social cognition: the ability to empathize with the feelings of another. In contrast to theory of mind, a capacity that has often been observed to be impaired in individuals with autism, much less is known about the capacity of individuals with autism for affect sharing. Based on previous data suggesting that empathy deficits in autism are a function of interoceptive deficits related to alexithymia, we aimed to investigate empathic brain responses in autistic and control participants with high and low degrees of alexithymia. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we measured empathic brain responses with an ‘empathy for pain’ paradigm assessing empathic brain responses in a real-life social setting that does not rely on attention to, or recognition of, facial affect cues. Confirming previous findings, empathic brain responses to the suffering of others were associated with increased activation in left anterior insula and the strength of this signal was predictive of the degree of alexithymia in both autistic and control groups but did not vary as a function of group. Importantly, there was no difference in the degree of empathy between autistic and control groups after accounting for alexithymia. These findings suggest that empathy deficits observed in autism may be due to the large comorbidity between alexithymic traits and autism, rather than representing a necessary feature of the social impairments in autism.
empathy; autism; alexithymia; interoception; anterior insula; mentalizing; theory of mind
Non-human primates are marked by well-developed prosocial and cooperative tendencies as reflected in the way they support each other in fights, hunt together, share food and console victims of aggression. The proximate motivation behind such behaviour is not to be confused with the ultimate reasons for its evolution. Even if a behaviour is ultimately self-serving, the motivation behind it may be genuinely unselfish. A sharp distinction needs to be drawn, therefore, between (i) altruistic and cooperative behaviour with knowable benefits to the actor, which may lead actors aware of these benefits to seek them by acting cooperatively or altruistically and (ii) altruistic behaviour that offers the actor no knowable rewards. The latter is the case if return benefits occur too unpredictably, too distantly in time or are of an indirect nature, such as increased inclusive fitness. The second category of behaviour can be explained only by assuming an altruistic impulse, which—as in humans—may be born from empathy with the recipient's need, pain or distress. Empathy, a proximate mechanism for prosocial behaviour that makes one individual share another's emotional state, is biased the way one would predict from evolutionary theories of cooperation (i.e. by kinship, social closeness and reciprocation). There is increasing evidence in non-human primates (and other mammals) for this proximate mechanism as well as for the unselfish, spontaneous nature of the resulting prosocial tendencies. This paper further reviews observational and experimental evidence for the reciprocity mechanisms that underlie cooperation among non-relatives, for inequity aversion as a constraint on cooperation and on the way defection is dealt with.
cooperation; prosocial behaviour; non-human primates; reciprocity
In this study, we tested the validity of 2 popular assumptions about empathy: (a) empathy can be enhanced by oxytocin, a neuropeptide known to be crucial in affiliative behavior, and (b) individual differences in prosocial behavior are positively associated with empathic brain responses. To do so, we measured brain activity in a double-blind placebo-controlled study of 20 male participants either receiving painful stimulation to their own hand (self condition) or observing their female partner receiving painful stimulation to her hand (other condition). Prosocial behavior was measured using a monetary economic interaction game with which participants classified as prosocial (N = 12) or selfish (N = 6), depending on whether they cooperated with another player. Empathy-relevant brain activation (anterior insula) was neither enhanced by oxytocin nor positively associated with prosocial behavior. However, oxytocin reduced amygdala activation when participants received painful stimulation themselves (in the nonsocial condition). Surprisingly, this effect was driven by “selfish” participants. The results suggest that selfish individuals may not be as rational and unemotional as usually suggested, their actions being determined by their feeling anxious rather than by reason.
empathy; pain; prosocial behavior; oxytocin; amygdala
The ways in which aging affects social economic decision-making is a central issue in the psychology of aging. To examine age-related differences in social economic decision-making as a function of empathy, 80 healthy volunteers participated in the Repeated Fixed Opponent Ultimatum Game (UG-R). Previous economic decision making research has shown that in younger adults empathy is associated with prosocial behavior. The effects of empathy on older adult social economic decision-making are not well understood.
On each of 20 consecutive trials in the UG-R, one player (“Proposer”) splits ten dollars with another player (“Responder”) who chooses either to accept (whereby both receive the proposed division) or reject (whereby neither receives anything). Trait cognitive and emotional empathy were measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index.
UG-R data were examined as a function of age and cognitive empathy. For unfair offers (i.e., offers less than $5), older Responders with high cognitive empathy showed less prosocial behavior and obtained greater payoffs than younger Responders with high cognitive empathy.
High levels of cognitive empathy may differentially affect economic decision making behavior in younger and older adults. For older adults, high cognitive empathy may be involved in obtaining high financial payoffs while for younger adults it may instead facilitate social relationships.
Aging; Economic Decision-Making; Social Cognition; Empathy
Empathy is an outcome-relevant physician characteristic and thus a crucial component of high-quality communication in health care. However, the factors that promote and inhibit the development of empathy during medical education have not been extensively researched. Also, currently there is no explicit research on the perspective of practicing physicians on the subject. Therefore the aim of our study was to explore physicians’ views of the positive and negative influences on the development of empathy during their medical education, as well as in their everyday work as physicians.
We administered a written Qualitative Short Survey to 63 physicians in seven specialties. They were able to respond anonymously. Our open-ended question was: “What educational content in the course of your studies and/or your specialist training had a positive or negative effect on your empathy?” We analyzed the data using thematic content analysis following Mayring’s approach.
Forty-two physicians took part in our survey. All together, they mentioned 68 specific factors (37 positive, 29 negative, 2 neutral) from which six themes emerged: 1. In general, medical education does not promote the development of empathy. 2. Recognizing the psycho-social dimensions of care fosters empathy. 3. Interactions with patients in medical practice promote empathy. 4. Physicians’ active self-development through reflective practice helps the development of empathy. 5. Interactions with colleagues can both promote and inhibit empathy through their role modeling of empathic and non-empathic behavior. 6. Stress, time pressure, and adverse working conditions are detrimental to empathy development.
Our results provide an overview of what might influence the development of clinical empathy, as well as hypothetical conclusions about how to promote it. Reflective practice seems to be lacking in current medical curricula and could be incorporated. Raising physicians’ awareness of the psycho-social dimension of disease, and of the impact of peer influence and role modeling, seems promising in this regard, too. Stress and well-being seem to be closely related to physician empathy, and their modulation must take into account individual, social, and organizational factors. Further research should investigate whether or how these hypothetical conclusions can deepen our understanding of the determinants of physician empathy in order to help its promotion.
Empathy; Medical education; Physician; Physician-patient relationship; Health communication; Promoting factors; Inhibiting factors
During adolescence, concerns about peer rejection and acceptance become increasingly common. Adolescents regularly experience peer rejection firsthand and witness these behaviors among their peers. In the current study, neuroimaging techniques were employed to conduct a preliminary investigation of the affective and cognitive processes involved in witnessing peer acceptance and rejection—specifically when these witnessed events occur in the immediate aftermath of a firsthand experience with rejection. During an fMRI scan, twenty-three adolescents underwent a simulated experience of firsthand peer rejection. Then, immediately following this experience they watched as another adolescent was ostensibly first accepted and then rejected. Findings indicated that in the immediate aftermath of being rejected by peers, adolescents displayed neural activity consistent with distress when they saw another peer being accepted, and neural activity consistent with emotion regulation and mentalizing (e.g., perspective-taking) processes when they saw another peer being rejected. Furthermore, individuals displaying a heightened sensitivity to firsthand rejection were more likely to show neural activity consistent with distress when observing a peer being accepted. Findings are discussed in terms of how witnessing others being accepted or rejected relates to adolescents’ interpretations of both firsthand and observed experiences with peers. Additionally, the potential impact that witnessed events might have on the broader perpetuation of bullying at this age is also considered.
peer rejection; peer acceptance; adolescence; functional magnetic resonance imaging; bullying
The neural processes underlying empathy are a subject of intense interest within the social neurosciences1-3. However, very little is known about how brain empathic responses are modulated by the affective link between individuals. We show here that empathic responses are modulated by learned preferences, a result consistent with economic models of social preferences4-7. We engaged male and female volunteers in an economic game, in which two confederates played fairly or unfairly, and then measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging while these same volunteers observed the confederates receiving pain. Both sexes exhibited empathy-related activation in pain-related brain areas (fronto-insular and anterior cingulate cortices) towards fair players. However, these empathy-related responses were significantly reduced in males when observing an unfair person receiving pain. This effect was accompanied by increased activation in reward-related areas, correlated with an expressed desire for revenge. We conclude that in men (at least) empathic responses are shaped by valuation of other people's social behaviour, such that they empathize with fair opponents while favouring the physical punishment of unfair opponents, a finding that echoes recent evidence for altruistic punishment.
A large number of neuroimaging studies have shown neural overlaps between first-hand experiences of pain and the perception of pain in others. This shared neural representation of vicarious pain is thought to involve both affective and sensorimotor systems. A number of individual factors are thought to modulate the cerebral response to other's pain. The goal of this study was to investigate the impact of psychopathic traits on the relation between sensorimotor resonance to other's pain and self-reported empathy. Our group has previously shown that a steady-state response to non-painful stimulation is modulated by the observation of other people's bodily pain. This change in somatosensory response was interpreted as a form of somatosensory gating (SG). Here, using the same technique, SG was compared between two groups of 15 young adult males: one scoring very high on a self-reported measure of psychopathic traits [60.8 ± 4.98; Levenson's Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (LSRP)] and one scoring very low (42.7 ± 2.94). The results showed a significantly greater reduction of SG to pain observation for the high psychopathic traits group compared to the low psychopathic traits group. SG to pain observation was positively correlated with affective and interpersonal facet of psychopathy in the whole sample. The high psychopathic traits group also reported lower empathic concern (EC) scores than the low psychopathic traits group. Importantly, primary psychopathy, as assessed by the LSRP, mediated the relation between EC and SG to pain observation. Together, these results suggest that increase somatosensory resonance to other's pain is not exclusively explained by trait empathy and may be linked to other personality dimensions, such as psychopathic traits.
pain perception; psychopathic traits; somatosensory resonance; shared representations; empathy
The study of the neural basis of emotional empathy has received a surge of interest in recent years but mostly employing human neuroimaging. A simpler animal model would pave the way for systematic single cell recordings and invasive manipulations of the brain regions implicated in empathy. Recent evidence has been put forward for the existence of empathy in rodents. In this study, we describe a potential model of empathy in female rats, in which we studied interactions between two rats: a witness observes a demonstrator experiencing a series of footshocks. By comparing the reaction of witnesses with or without previous footshock experience, we examine the role of prior experience as a modulator of empathy. We show that witnesses having previously experienced footshocks, but not naïve ones, display vicarious freezing behavior upon witnessing a cage-mate experiencing footshocks. Strikingly, the demonstrator's behavior was in turn modulated by the behavior of the witness: demonstrators froze more following footshocks if their witness froze more. Previous experiments have shown that rats emit ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs) when receiving footshocks. Thus, the role of USV in triggering vicarious freezing in our paradigm is examined. We found that experienced witness-demonstrator pairs emitted more USVs than naïve witness-demonstrator pairs, but the number of USVs was correlated with freezing in demonstrators, not in witnesses. Furthermore, playing back the USVs, recorded from witness-demonstrator pairs during the empathy test, did not induce vicarious freezing behavior in experienced witnesses. Thus, our findings confirm that vicarious freezing can be triggered in rats, and moreover it can be modulated by prior experience. Additionally, our result suggests that vicarious freezing is not triggered by USVs per se and it influences back onto the behavior of the demonstrator that had elicited the vicarious freezing in witnesses, introducing a paradigm to study empathy as a social loop.
People are able to rapidly infer complex personality traits and mental states even from the most minimal person information. Research has shown that when observers view a natural scene containing people, they spend a disproportionate amount of their time looking at the social features (e.g., faces, bodies). Does this preference for social features merely reflect the biological salience of these features or are observers spontaneously attempting to make sense of complex social dynamics? Using functional neuroimaging, we investigated neural responses to social and nonsocial visual scenes in a large sample of participants (n = 48) who varied on an individual difference measure assessing empathy and mentalizing (i.e., empathizing). Compared with other scene categories, viewing natural social scenes activated regions associated with social cognition (e.g., dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and temporal poles). Moreover, activity in these regions during social scene viewing was strongly correlated with individual differences in empathizing. These findings offer neural evidence that observers spontaneously engage in social cognition when viewing complex social material but that the degree to which people do so is mediated by individual differences in trait empathizing.
empathy; fMRI; individual differences; mentalizing; theory of mind
Empathy is critical to the quality of our relationships with others and plays an important role in life satisfaction and well-being. The scientific investigation of empathy has focused on characterizing its cognitive and neural substrates, and has pointed to the importance of a network of brain regions involved in emotional experience and perspective taking (e.g., ventromedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, anterior insula, cingulate). While the hippocampus has rarely been the focus of empathy research, the hallmark properties of the hippocampal declarative memory system (e.g., representational flexibility, relational binding, on-line processing capacity) make it well-suited to meet some of the crucial demands of empathy, and a careful investigation of this possibility could make a significant contribution to the neuroscientific understanding of empathy. The present study is a preliminary investigation of the role of the hippocampal declarative memory system in empathy. Participants were three patients (1 female) with focal, bilateral hippocampal (HC) damage and severe declarative memory impairments and three healthy demographically matched comparison participants. Empathy was measured as a trait through a battery of gold standard questionnaires and through on-line ratings and prosocial behavior in response to a series of empathy inductions. Patients with hippocampal amnesia reported lower cognitive and emotional trait empathy than healthy comparison participants. Unlike healthy comparison participants, in response to the empathy inductions hippocampal patients reported no increase in empathy ratings or prosocial behavior. The results provide preliminary evidence for a role for hippocampal declarative memory in empathy.
hippocampus; declarative memory; social cognition; empathy
People vicariously experience embarrassment when observing others' public pratfalls or etiquette violations. In two consecutive studies we investigated the subjective experience and the neural correlates of vicarious embarrassment for others in a broad range of situations. We demonstrated, first, that vicarious embarrassment was experienced regardless of whether the observed protagonist acted accidentally or intentionally and was aware or unaware that he/she was in an embarrassing situation. Second, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we showed that the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula, two cortical structures typically involved in vicarious feelings of others' pain, are also strongly implicated in experiencing the ‘social pain’ for others' flaws and pratfalls. This holds true even for situations that engage protagonists not aware of their current predicament. Importantly, the activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula positively correlated with individual differences in trait empathy. The present findings establish the empathic process as a fundamental prerequisite for vicarious embarrassment experiences, thus connecting affect and cognition to interpersonal processes.
“When we are living with people who have a delicate sense of propriety, we are in misery on their account when anything unbecoming is committed. So I always feel for and with Charlotte when a person is tipping his chair. She cannot endure it.” [Elective Affinities, J. W. Goethe].
The neuropeptide oxytocin functions as a hormone and neurotransmitter and facilitates complex social cognition and approach behavior. Given that empathy is an essential ingredient for third-party decision-making in institutions of justice, we investigated whether exogenous oxytocin modulates empathy of an unaffected third-party toward offenders and victims of criminal offenses. Healthy male participants received intranasal oxytocin or placebo in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, between-subjects design. Participants were given a set of legal vignettes that described an event during which an offender engaged in criminal offenses against victims. As an unaffected third-party, participants were asked to rate those criminal offenses on the degree to which the offender deserved punishment and how much harm was inflicted on the victim. Exogenous oxytocin selectively increased third-party decision-makers’ perceptions of harm for victims but not the desire to punish offenders of criminal offenses. We argue that oxytocin promoted empathic concern for the victim, which in turn increased the tendency for prosocial approach behavior regarding the interpersonal relationship between an unaffected third-party and a fictional victim in the criminal scenarios. Future research should explore the context- and person-dependent nature of exogenous oxytocin in individuals with antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy, in whom deficits in empathy feature prominently.
oxytocin; empathy; third-party decision-making; neurolaw; antisocial personality disorder; psychopathy
Psychopathic traits are associated with increases in antisocial behaviors such as aggression and are characterized by reduced empathy for others’ distress. This suggests that psychopathic traits may also impair empathic pain sensitivity. However, whether psychopathic traits affect responses to the pain of others versus the self has not been previously assessed.
We used whole-brain functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning to measure neural activation in 14 adolescents with Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder and psychopathic traits, as well as 21 healthy controls matched on age, sex, and intelligence. Activation in structures associated with empathic pain perception was assessed as adolescents viewed photographs of pain-inducing injuries. Adolescents imagined either that the body in each photograph was their own or that it belonged to another person. Behavioral and neuroimaging data were analyzed using random-effects analysis of variance.
Youths with psychopathic traits showed reduced activity within regions associated with empathic pain as the depicted pain increased. These regions included rostral anterior cingulate cortex, ventral striatum (putamen), and amygdala. Reductions in amygdala activity particularly occurred when the injury was perceived as occurring to another. Empathic pain responses within both amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex were negatively correlated with the severity of psychopathic traits as indexed by PCL:YV scores.
Youths with psychopathic traits show less responsiveness in regions implicated in the affective response to another’s pain as the perceived intensity of this pain increases. Moreover, this reduced responsiveness appears to predict symptom severity.
Psychopathy; adolescents; empathy; pain; amygdala; Conduct Disorder
Theory and evidence suggest that empathy is an important motivating factor for prosocial behaviour and that emotion regulation, i.e. the capacity to exert control over an emotional response, may moderate the degree to which empathy is associated with prosocial behaviour. However, studies to date have not simultaneously explored the associations between different empathic processes and prosocial behaviour, nor whether different types of emotion regulation strategies (e.g. cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression) moderate associations between empathy and prosocial behaviour. One hundred–and-ten healthy adults completed questionnaire measures of empathy, emotion regulation and prosocial tendencies. In this sample, both affective and cognitive empathy predicted self-reported prosocial tendencies. In addition, cognitive reappraisal moderated the association between affective empathy and prosocial tendencies. Specifically, there was a significant positive association between empathy and prosocial tendencies for individuals with a low or average tendency to reappraise but not for those with a high tendency to reappraise. Our findings suggest that, in general, empathy is positively associated with prosocial behaviour. However, this association is not significant for individuals with a high tendency for cognitive reappraisal.
Pain can be influenced by its social context. We aimed to examine under controlled experimental conditions how empathy from a partner and personal attachment style affect pain report, tolerance, and facial expressions of pain. Fifty-four participants, divided into secure, anxious, and avoidant attachment style groups, underwent a cold pressor task with their partners present. We manipulated how much empathy the participants perceived that their partners had for them. We observed a significant main effect of perceived empathy on pain report, with greater pain reported in the high perceived empathy condition. No such effects were found for pain tolerance or facial display. We also found a significant interaction of empathy with attachment style group, with the avoidant group reporting and displaying less pain than the secure and the anxious groups in the high perceived empathy condition. No such findings were observed in the low empathy condition. These results suggest that empathy from one's partner may influence pain report beyond behavioral reactions. In addition, the amount of pain report and expression that people show in high empathy conditions depends on their attachment style.
Believing that one's partner feels high empathy for one's pain may lead individuals to rate the intensity of pain as higher. Individual differences in attachment style moderate this empathy effect.
•The role of empathy and attachment style on pain was studied experimentally.•Empathy from one's partner may influence pain report and behavioral reactions.•Perceived high empathy from a partner may lead to higher pain ratings.•Individual differences in attachment style moderate this empathy effect.•Individual differences in attachment style also moderate facial display of pain.
Social support; social presence; empathy; partner; attachment
Developmental research has demonstrated the harmful effects of peer rejection during adolescence; however, the neural mechanisms responsible for this salience remain unexplored. In this study, 23 adolescents were excluded during a ball-tossing game in which they believed they were playing with two other adolescents during an fMRI scan; in reality, participants played with a preset computer program. Afterwards, participants reported their exclusion-related distress and rejection sensitivity, and parents reported participants’ interpersonal competence. Similar to findings in adults, during social exclusion adolescents displayed insular activity that was positively related to self-reported distress, and right ventrolateral prefrontal activity that was negatively related to self-reported distress. Findings unique to adolescents indicated that activity in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (subACC) related to greater distress, and that activity in the ventral striatum related to less distress and appeared to play a role in regulating activity in the subACC and other regions involved in emotional distress. Finally, adolescents with higher rejection sensitivity and interpersonal competence scores displayed greater neural evidence of emotional distress, and adolescents with higher interpersonal competence scores also displayed greater neural evidence of regulation, perhaps suggesting that adolescents who are vigilant regarding peer acceptance may be most sensitive to rejection experiences.
peer rejection; adolescence; functional magnetic resonance imaging