Vagal activity is quadratically related to prosocial traits, prosocial emotions, and observer perceptions of prosociality

Aleksandr Kogan, Christopher Oveis, Evan W. Carr, June Gruber, Iris B. Mauss, Amanda Shallcross, Emily A. Impett, Ilmo van der Lowe, Bryant Hui, Cecilia Cheng, Dacher Keltner

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

95 Citations (Scopus)


In the present article, we introduce the quadratic vagal activity-prosociality hypothesis, a theoretical framework for understanding the vagus nerve's involvement in prosociality. We argue that vagus nerve activity supports prosocial behavior by regulating physiological systems that enable emotional expression, empathy for others' mental and emotional states, the regulation of one's own distress, and the experience of positive emotions. However, we contend that extremely high levels of vagal activity can be detrimental to prosociality. We present 3 studies providing support for our model, finding consistent evidence of a quadratic relationship between respiratory sinus arrhythmia-the degree to which the vagus nerve modulates the heart rate-and prosociality. Individual differences in vagal activity were quadratically related to prosocial traits (Study 1), prosocial emotions (Study 2), and outside ratings of prosociality by complete strangers (Study 3). Thus, too much or too little vagal activity appears to be detrimental to prosociality. The present article provides the 1st theoretical and empirical account of the nonlinear relationship between vagal activity and prosociality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1051-1063
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Cardiac vagal tone
  • Emotion
  • Heart rate variability
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia
  • Thin slicing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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