I know how you feel: the warm-altruistic personality profile and the empathic brain

PLoS One. 2015 Mar 13;10(3):e0120639. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120639. eCollection 2015.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Altruism*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Extraversion, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Personality / physiology*
  • Social Skills*
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

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.