Skip to main page content
Access keys NCBI Homepage MyNCBI Homepage Main Content Main Navigation
. 2015 Mar 13;10(3):e0120639.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120639. eCollection 2015.

I Know How You Feel: The Warm-Altruistic Personality Profile and the Empathic Brain

Free PMC article

I Know How You Feel: The Warm-Altruistic Personality Profile and the Empathic Brain

Brian W Haas et al. PLoS One. .
Free PMC article


The ability to empathize with other people is a critical component of human social relationships. Empathic processing varies across the human population, however it is currently unclear how personality traits are associated with empathic processing. This study was designed to test the hypothesis that specific personality traits are associated with behavioral and biological indicators of improved empathy. Extraversion and Agreeableness are personality traits designed to measure individual differences in social-cognitive functioning, however each trait-dimension includes elements that represent interpersonal social functioning and elements that do not represent interpersonal social functioning. We tested the prediction that interpersonal elements of Extraversion (Warmth) and Agreeableness (Altruism) are associated with empathy and non-interpersonal elements of Extraversion and Agreeableness are not associated with empathy. We quantified empathic processing behaviorally (empathic accuracy task using video vignettes) and within the brain (fMRI and an emotional perspective taking task) in 50 healthy subjects. Converging evidence shows that highly warm and altruistic people are well skilled in recognizing the emotional states of other people and exhibit greater activity in brain regions important for empathy (temporoparietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex) during emotional perspective taking. A mediation analysis further supported the association between warm-altruistic personality and empathic processing; indicating that one reason why highly warm-altruistic individuals may be skilled empathizers is that they engage the temporoparietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex more. Together, these findings advance the way the behavioral and neural basis of empathy is understood and demonstrates the efficacy of personality scales to measure individual differences in interpersonal social function.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Fig 1
Fig 1. Examples of stimuli used for the emotional perspective taking task performed during functional neuroimaging.
Participants were asked to make two types of decisions. During emotional perspective taking, participants were instructed to take into account the social interaction within a scene presented on the top of the screen, and to decide which of two emotional facial expressions best matches the face. During shape matching (control condition), participants were instructed to match the shape imbedded within the social scene with one of two shapes presented on the bottom of the screen. The individuals in this image have given written informed consent to publish this image.
Fig 2
Fig 2. A. Results of whole brain analysis, within warm-altruistic composite scores predicting brain activity during emotional perspective taking > shape matching.
A total of four statistically significant clusters are reported (bilateral TPJ, right medial PFC, and left premotor cortex). B. Data from each cluster within the empathy/theory of mind network are extracted (y-axis) and plotted against altruism-warmth composite scores (x-axis). TPJ: temporoparietal junction; PFC: prefrontal cortex; R: right; L: Left.
Fig 3
Fig 3. Overall model for mediation analysis.
The association between warm- altruistic composite scores and empathic accuracy is mediated by activity within the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC) and temporoparietal junction (TPJ).

Similar articles

See all similar articles

Cited by 9 articles

See all "Cited by" articles


    1. Gonzalez-Liencres C, Shamay-Tsoory SG, Brune M. Towards a neuroscience of empathy: ontogeny, phylogeny, brain mechanisms, context and psychopathology. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013; 37: 1537–1548. 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.05.001 - DOI - PubMed
    1. Preston SD, De Waal F. Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and brain sciences. 2002; 25: 1–20. - PubMed
    1. Wiggins JS. A psychological taxonomy of trait-descriptive terms: The interpersonal domain. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1979; 37: 395.
    1. DeYoung CG, Weisberg YJ, Quilty LC, Peterson JB. Unifying the aspects of the Big Five, the interpersonal circumplex, and trait affiliation. Journal of personality. 2013; 81: 465–475. 10.1111/jopy.12020 - DOI - PubMed
    1. John OP, Naumann LP, Soto CJ. Paradigm shift to the integrative big five trait taxonomy. Handbook of personality: Theory and research. 2008; 3: 114–158.

Publication types

Grant support

This study was funded by the University of Georgia, Office of the Vice President for Research. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.