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Neuropsychologia. 2018 Jul 31;116(Pt A):34-43. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.02.015. Epub 2017 Feb 22.

Neuroanatomical basis of concern-based altruism in virtual environment.

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Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, Neuroscience Sector, Trieste, Italy; Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA. Electronic address:
Centre for Studies and Research in Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Bologna, Italy.
Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience (CSAN), Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden.
Human-Computer Interaction Lab, Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Physics, University of Udine, Udine, Italy.
Department of Applied Psychology: Health, Development, Enhancement and Intervention, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.


Costly altruism entails helping others at a cost to the self and prior work shows that empathic concern (EC) for the well-being of distressed and vulnerable individuals is one of the primary motivators of such behavior. However, extant work has investigated costly altruism with paradigms that did not feature self-relevant and severe costs for the altruist and have solely focused on neurofunctional, and not neuroanatomical, correlates. In the current study, we used a contextually-rich virtual reality environment to study costly altruism and found that individuals who risked their own lives in the virtual world to try to save someone in danger had enlarged right anterior insula and exhibited greater empathic concern than those who did not. These findings add to the growing literature showing the role of caring motivation in promoting altruism and prosociality and its neural correlates in the right anterior insula.


Altruism; Empathic concern; Empathy; Moral; Morphometry; Prosocial

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