Empathy as a driver of prosocial behaviour: Highly conserved neurobehavioural mechanisms across species

Jean Decety*, Inbal Ben Ami Bartal, Florina Uzefovsky, Ariel Knafo-Noam

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

387 Scopus citations


Empathy reflects the natural ability to perceive and be sensitive to the emotional states of others, coupled with a motivation to care for their well-being. It has evolved in the context of parental care for offspring, as well as within kinship bonds, to help facilitate group living. In this paper, we integrate the perspectives of evolution, animal behaviour, developmental psychology, and social and clinical neuroscience to elucidate our understanding of the proximate mechanisms underlying empathy. We focus, in particular, on processing of signals of distress and need, and their relation to prosocial behaviour. The ability to empathize, both in animals and humans, mediates prosocial behaviour when sensitivity to others’ distress is paired with a drive towards their welfare. Disruption or atypical development of the neural circuits that process distress cues and integrate them with decision value leads to callous disregard for others, as is the case in psychopathy. The realization that basic forms of empathy exist in non-human animals is crucial for gaining new insights into the underlying neurobiological and genetic mechanisms of empathy, enabling translation towards therapeutic and pharmacological interventions.

Original languageAmerican English
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1686
StatePublished - 19 Jan 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.


  • Biological mechanisms
  • Caring
  • Development
  • Empathy
  • Evolution
  • Prosocial behaviour


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