Empathy matters: ERP evidence for inter-individual differences in social language processing.

D van den Brink, J van Berkum, MCM Bastiaansen, CMJY Tesink, M Kos, JK Buitelaar, P. Hagoort

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


When an adult claims he cannot sleep without his teddy bear, people tend to react surprised. Language interpretation is, thus, influenced by social context, such as who the speaker is. The present study reveals inter-individual differences in brain reactivity to social aspects of language. Whereas women showed brain reactivity when stereotype-based inferences about a speaker conflicted with the content of the message, men did not. This sex difference in social information processing can be explained by a specific cognitive trait, one’s ability to empathize. Individuals who empathize to a greater degree revealed larger N400 effects (as well as a larger increase in γ-band power) to socially relevant information. These results indicate that individuals with high-empathizing skills are able to rapidly integrate information about the speaker with the content of the message, as they make use of voice-based inferences about the speaker to process language in a top-down manner. Alternatively, individuals with lower empathizing skills did not use information about social stereotypes in implicit sentence comprehension, but rather took a more bottom-up approach to the processing of these social pragmatic sentences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-183
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes


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