Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Females are considered the more empathic sex. This conventional view, however, has been challenged in the past few decades with mixed findings. These heterogeneous findings could be caused by the fact that empathy is a complex and multifaceted construct. To clarify whether sex differences exist in certain dimensions of empathy and whether they are associated with specific neural bases, this study measured trait empathy using the interpersonal reactivity index (IRI) and collected brain structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging data in a large sample of healthy participants (206 males vs. 302 females). We found that females scored higher in the personal distress (PD) subscale than males, but they were comparable to males in other IRI subscales. Sex difference in PD was encoded by brain structural (e.g. gray matter volume in left anterior insula [AI]) and functional (e.g. resting-state functional connectivity between left AI and temporoparietal junction/inferior frontal gyrus) characteristics. Notably, the relationship between sex and PD was indirect-only and serially mediated by AI-associated structural and functional characteristics. Altogether, our results suggested that sex difference existed in self-oriented affective empathy (i.e. PD) and highlighted the importance of the AI, both structurally and functionally, in mediating the sex difference in trait empathy.

Original publication




Journal article


Cerebral Cortex

Publication Date





5055 - 5065