Trait compassion is associated with the neural substrate of empathy

Xin Hou, Timothy A. Allen, Dongtao Wei, Hui Huang, Kangcheng Wang, Colin G. DeYoung, Jiang Qiu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Individual differences in the personality trait Agreeableness underlie humans’ ability to interpret social cues and coordinate effectively with others. However, previous investigations of the neural basis of Agreeableness have yielded largely inconsistent results. Recent evidence has demonstrated that Agreeableness can be divided into two, correlated subdimensions. Compassion reflects tendencies toward empathy, sympathy, and concern for others, while Politeness reflects tendencies toward compliance and refraining from aggression and exploitation. The present study seeks to clarify the neural substrates of Agreeableness by examining whether structural differences in the brain show distinct associations with Compassion and Politeness. Results of a meta-analysis of fMRI studies examining empathy were used to generate hypotheses about the brain regions and networks that underlie trait Compassion. Results of a large-scale structural neuroimaging investigation (N = 275) were largely consistent with the meta-analysis: Compassion was positively correlated with gray matter volume in the bilateral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and anterior insula (AI). Further, these differences appear to be associated with Compassion specifically, as opposed to Politeness, suggesting that these two traits have at least partially distinct neuroanatomical substrates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1018-1027
Number of pages10
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31271087; 31470981; 31571137; 31500885), National Outstanding Young People Plan, the Program for the Top Young Talents by Chongqing, the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (SWU1509383, SWU1509451), Natural Science Foundation of Chongqing (cstc2015jcyjA10106), Fok Ying Tung Education Foundation (151023), General Financial Grant from the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2015M572423, 2015M580767), Special Funds from the Chongqing Postdoctoral Science Foundation (Xm2015037), Key research for humanities and social sciences of the Ministry of Education (14JJD880009).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017, Psychonomic Society, Inc.


  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Neuroimaging
  • Personality


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