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Empathy predicts false belief reasoning ability: Evidence from the N400

Ferguson, Heather J., Cane, James E., Douchkov, Michelle, Wright, Daniel (2015) Empathy predicts false belief reasoning ability: Evidence from the N400. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10 (6). pp. 848-855. ISSN 1749-5016. (doi:10.1093/scan/nsu131) (KAR id:43473)


Interpreting others’ actions relies on an understanding of their current mental state. Emerging research has begun to identify a number of factors that give rise to individual differences in this ability. We report an ERP study where participants (N=28) read contexts that described a character having a true (TB) or false belief (FB) about an object’s location. A second sentence described where that character would look for the object. Critically, this sentence included a sentence-final noun that was either consistent or inconsistent with the character’s belief. Participants also completed the Empathy Quotient questionnaire. Analysis of the N400 revealed that when the character held a TB about the object’s location, the N400 waveform was more negative-going for belief inconsistent vs. belief consistent critical words. However, when the character held a FB about the object’s location the opposite pattern was found. Intriguingly, correlations between the N400 inconsistency effect and individuals’ empathy scores showed a significant correlation for FB but not TB. This suggests that people who are high in empathy can successfully interpret events according to the character’s FB, while low empathisers bias their interpretation of events to their own egocentric view.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1093/scan/nsu131
Uncontrolled keywords: Theory of Mind, false beliefs, event-related brain potentials, N400, discourse comprehension
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Funders: Leverhulme Trust (
Depositing User: Heather Ferguson
Date Deposited: 18 Oct 2014 14:07 UTC
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2022 10:40 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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Ferguson, Heather J..

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Cane, James E..

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