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, 63 (1), 97-104

Association of Menstrual Cycle Phase With the Core Components of Empathy


Association of Menstrual Cycle Phase With the Core Components of Empathy

Birgit Derntl et al. Horm Behav.


Evidence has accumulated that emotion recognition performance varies with menstrual cycle phase. However, according to some empathy models, facial affect recognition constitutes only one component of empathic behavior, besides emotional perspective taking and affective responsiveness. It remains unclear whether menstrual cycle phase and thus estradiol and progesterone levels are also associated with the two other empathy constructs. Therefore, we investigated 40 healthy right-handed females, 20 during their follicular phase and 20 during their midluteal phase and compared their performance in three tasks tapping the empathic components as well as self-report data. Salivary hormone levels were obtained and correlated with performance parameters. Subjects were matched for age and education and did not differ in neuropsychological function. Analysis of empathy performance revealed a significant effect of phase in emotion recognition, showing higher accuracy in the follicular group. Regarding affective responsiveness, we observed a significant difference in reaction times, with faster responses for sad and angry stimuli in the midluteal group. No significant group difference emerged for emotional perspective taking. Furthermore, significant correlations between progesterone levels and emotion recognition accuracy and affective responsiveness emerged only in the luteal group. However, groups did not differ in self-reported empathy. Our results indicate that menstrual cycle phase and thus ovarian hormone concentration are differentially related to empathic behavior, particularly emotion recognition and responsiveness to negative situations, with progesterone covarying with both in the luteal phase.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Recognition accuracy (a) and reaction times (b) with standard error of mean for the separate empathy tasks for both groups (early follicular: n = 20 females, FO; midluteal: n = 17 females, LU). Data analysis yielded a significant group effect for emotion recognition accuracy (p = 0.01), revealing better performance of the females during their early follicular phase marked with an asterisk. Moreover, analysis of reaction times for affective responsiveness revealed significantly faster responses of LU group for sad (p = .02) and angry stimuli (p = .02).
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Correlation analyses revealed significant results for the LU group only: (a) for emotion recognition, a significant negative association between transformed progesterone levels (pg/mL) and accuracy (r = − 0.51, p = .04) occurred. (b) A marginally significant positive correlation between transformed progesterone levels and accuracy in affective responsiveness (r = 0.49, p = .05) emerged.

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