Prefrontal substrates of empathy: psychometric evidence in a community sample

Biol Psychol. 2005 Dec;70(3):175-81. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.01.005. Epub 2005 Aug 18.


Empathy is a vicarious experience of others' emotions, and is crucial to many forms of adaptive social interaction. Clinical, experimental, and functional neuroimaging studies convergently suggest a role for prefrontal-limbic circuits in mediating empathy. This study examined the prefrontal basis of empathy in a community sample using self-report measures: the frontal systems behavior scale (FrSBe), Barratt impulsiveness scale (BIS), and the interpersonal reactivity index (IRI). Multiple correlations emerged supporting an inverse relationship between prefrontal system dysfunction and empathy, particularly emotional empathy and perspective taking. Many of these relationships persisted after controlling for age, sex, and education. However, FrSBe scales did not correlate with one's identification with fictional characters, and motor impulsivity correlated positively, presumably due to the different cognitive and emotional context (i.e. real versus fictional individuals). These studies parallel others using objective methodologies and suggest a graded relationship between prefrontal function and empathy and likely reflect normal variations in prefrontal-limbic function.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emotions
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Personality
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Psychometrics