Effects of empathic social responses on the emotions of the recipient

Brain Cogn. 2016 Mar:103:50-61. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2015.11.004. Epub 2016 Feb 4.


Empathy is highly relevant for social behavior and can be verbally expressed by voicing sympathy and concern (emotional empathy) as well as by paraphrasing or stating that one can mentally reconstruct and understand another person's thoughts and feelings (cognitive empathy). In this study, we investigated the emotional effects and neural correlates of receiving empathic social responses after negative performance feedback and compared the effects of emotionally vs. cognitively empathic comments. 20 participants (10 male) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while receiving negative performance feedback for a cognitive task. Performance feedback was followed by verbal comments either expressing cognitive and emotional empathy or demonstrating a lack of empathy. Empathic comments in general led to less negative self-reported feelings and calmer breathing. At the neural level, empathic comments induced activity in regions associated with social cognition and emotion processing, specifically in right postcentral gyrus and left cerebellum (cognitively empathic comments), right precentral gyrus, the opercular part of left inferior frontal gyrus, and left middle temporal gyrus (emotionally empathic comments), as well as the orbital part of the left middle frontal gyrus and left superior parietal gyrus (emotionally empathic vs. unempathic comments). The study shows that cognitively and emotionally empathic comments appear to be processed in partially separable neural systems. Furthermore, confirming and expanding on another study on the same subject, the present results demonstrate that the social display of cognitive empathy exerts almost as positive effects on the recipient's feelings and emotions in states of distress as emotionally empathic response does. This can be relevant for professional settings in which strong negative emotions need to be de-escalated while maintaining professional impartiality, which may allow the display of cognitive but not emotional empathy.

Keywords: Emotion; Empathy; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Social cognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Problem Solving / physiology
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Environment
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen