Dissociating the ability and propensity for empathy

Trends Cogn Sci. 2014 Apr;18(4):163-6. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.12.011. Epub 2014 Jan 28.


Neuroimaging suggests psychopaths have reduced vicarious activations when simply witnessing pain but less so when asked to empathize. This inspired us to distinguish the ability from the propensity to empathize. We argue that (i) this ability-propensity distinction is crucial to characterizing empathy in psychiatric disorders such as psychopathy and autism, (ii) that costly helping might be best predicted by the propensity for empathy, and (iii) suggest how social neuroscientists can start exploring this distinction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attention
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Dissociative Disorders* / pathology
  • Dissociative Disorders* / physiopathology
  • Dissociative Disorders* / psychology
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Motivation
  • Neuroimaging