Empathy and anger are two social emotions that modulate an individual’s risk for aggression. Empathy is an emotional reaction to another individual’s emotional state. Anger is an emotional reaction to threat, frustration or social provocation. Reduced empathy, seen in psychopathy, increases the risk for goal-directed aggression. Atypically increased anger (i.e. irritability), seen in conditions like disruptive mood dysregulation disorder and borderline personality disorder, increases the risk for reactive aggression. In this paper, I will outline core neurocognitive functions that correspond to empathy and which are compromised in individuals with psychopathic traits. In addition, I will outline neurocognitive functions involved in either the generation or regulation of anger and which are compromised in psychiatric conditions at increased risk for irritability/reactive aggression. It can be hoped that improved understanding of empathy and anger will lead to better assessment tools and improved interventions to reduce aggression risk.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘Diverse perspectives on diversity: multi-disciplinary approaches to taxonomies of individual differences’.