Empathy, target distress, and neurohormone genes interact to predict aggression for others-even without provocation

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2014 Nov;40(11):1406-22. doi: 10.1177/0146167214549320.


Can empathy for others motivate aggression on their behalf? This research examined potential predictors of empathy-linked aggression including the emotional state of empathy, an empathy target's distress state, and the function of the social anxiety-modulating neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin. In Study 1 (N = 69), self-reported empathy combined with threat to a close other and individual differences in genes for the vasopressin receptor (AVPR1a rs3) and oxytocin receptor (OXTR rs53576) to predict self-reported aggression against a person who threatened a close other. In Study 2 (N = 162), induced empathy for a person combined with OXTR variation or with that person's distress and AVPR1a variation led to increased amount of hot sauce assigned to that person's competitor. Empathy uniquely predicts aggression and may do so by way of aspects of the human caregiving system in the form of oxytocin and vasopressin.

Keywords: aggressive behavior; caregiving; empathy; oxytocin; prosocial behavior; vasopressin.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Genotype
  • Helping Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / genetics
  • Receptors, Vasopressin / genetics
  • Young Adult


  • OXTR protein, human
  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Receptors, Vasopressin