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The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (Social Neuroscience Series) [Paperback]

Jean Decety , William Ickes

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Book Description

11 Feb 2011 Social Neuroscience
In recent decades, empathy research has blossomed into a vibrant and multidisciplinary field of study. The social neuroscience approach to the subject is premised on the idea that studying empathy at multiple levels (biological, cognitive, and social) will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of how other people's thoughts and feelings can affect our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In these cutting-edge contributions, leading advocates of the multilevel approach view empathy from the perspectives of social, cognitive, developmental and clinical psychology and cognitive/affective neuroscience. Chapters include a critical examination of the various definitions of the empathy construct; surveys of major research traditions based on these differing views (including empathy as emotional contagion, as the projection of one's own thoughts and feelings, and as a fundamental aspect of social development); clinical and applied perspectives, including psychotherapy and the study of empathy for other people's pain; various neuroscience perspectives; and discussions of empathy's evolutionary and neuroanatomical histories, with a special focus on neuroanatomical continuities and differences across the phylogenetic spectrum. The new discipline of social neuroscience bridges disciplines and levels of analysis. In this volume, the contributors' state-of-the-art investigations of empathy from a social neuroscience perspective vividly illustrate the potential benefits of such cross-disciplinary integration.ContributorsC. Daniel Batson, James Blair, Karina Blair, Jerold D. Bozarth, Anne Buysse, Susan F. Butler, Michael Carlin, C. Sue Carter, Kenneth D. Craig, Mirella Dapretto, Jean Decety, Mathias Dekeyser, Ap Dijksterhuis, Robert Elliott, Natalie D. Eggum, Nancy Eisenberg, Norma Deitch Feshbach, Seymour Feshbach, Liesbet Goubert, Leslie S. Greenberg, Elaine Hatfield, James Harris, William Ickes, Claus Lamm, Yen-Chi Le, Mia Leijssen, Abigail Marsh, Raymond S. Nickerson, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, Stephen W. Porges, Richard L. Rapson, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, Rick B. van Baaren, Matthijs L. van Leeuwen, Andries van der Leij, Jeanne C. Watson

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"Decety and Ickes' new edited volume, The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, embraces the complexity of empathy rather than shrinking away from or ignoring it. I anticipate this book to be one that I will frequently consult, as well as one to which I will refer many current and future students."--Sara D. Hodges, Department of Psychology, University of Oregon

About the Author

Jean Decety is the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago. He is the coeditor of The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (MIT Press, 2007). William Ickes is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, Arlington.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The Social Neuroscience of Empathy" Book Review 9 Oct 2012
By Daniel Clough - Published on
"The Social Neuroscience of Empathy" edited by Jean Decety and William Ickes is a great book for anyone who wishes to get a better understanding of empathy and a comprehensive overview of the current research in the field of empathy.

Book's Style and Structure

"The Social Neuroscience of Empathy" is a composition of works from various psychologists and neuroscientists that covers many aspects of empathy. The first chapter of the book introduces the concept of empathy and defines empathy using eight phenomena. The rest of the book is divided into three main perspectives on empathy: I) Social, Cognitive, and Developmental Perspectives, II) Clinical Perspectives and III) Evolutionary and Neuroscience Perspectives.


In the first chapter, readers are introduced to the concept of empathy. Two questions about human behavior are proposed that relate to the concept of empathy: 1) "How can one know what another person is thinking and feeling?" and 2) "What leads one person to respond with sensitivity and care to the suffering of another?". This chapter also discusses several uses of the term empathy such as when a person knows another's internal state, feels the way another person feels, imagines how they feel, feels distress over another's suffering, or has empathic concern for another's suffering.

In the Social, Cognitive, and Developmental part of the book, empathy is explored through a variety of difference social interactions. Social imitation is described as an automatic process in which behavior and mannerisms are subconsciously mimicked, leading to a higher sense of social unity. In the chapter on Empathetic Accuracy, there is a focus on clinical psychology with a look into autism, borderline personality disorder, and martially abusive men. The chapter Empathy and Education discusses the role empathy plays in the academic environment. It examines how student empathy can aid in cooperation, the prevention of aggressive behavior, and increased academic achievement. This chapter also discusses how a teacher's empathy for the students can improve the student's attitude toward learning and acceptance of other students.

In the clinical perspectives part of the book, empathy is discussed in how it relates to psychotherapy and the relationship between therapist and client. The empathy resulting from perceiving another person in pain is proposed as being a key social construct for raising a sense of alarm or motivation to provide aid. This part of the book also describes how empathy, or lack of empathy, relates to psychopathy and moral reasoning.

The Evolutionary and Neuroscience Perspectives on Empathy chapters of the book cover concepts such as the evolution of social behaviors, neural networks, and neuroendocrine processes that are involved with empathy. This part of the book describes empathy from a physiological point of view, showing how difference brain structures are involved in social engagement. Oxytocin and vasopressin are two molecules highlighted for their influence on human social behavior and their possible influence on differences in empathy between males and females. In the chapter "Mirror, Mirror, in my Mind" the book describes the role of mirror neuron like responses in humans as shown by brain imaging techniques such as functional MRI, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and electroencephalography.

Review of Pros and Cons

Pros: The text is easy to read and all non-technical terms are well defined which allows for quick comprehension. Examples from psychological and neuroscience experiments are woven in to add support to the conceptual claims. The book approaches empathy from both a behavioral standpoint and a neuroscience standpoint.

Cons: Some parts of the book could have been a bit more concise. The examples used to give further clarification can become repetitive at times. During the chapter on Empathy and Knowledge Projection, the concept of projection is clearly explained using a few examples, but the authors go on to include many more examples that do not additionally add to the reader's understanding. Due to the fact that the book is a compilation of several author's research areas, empathy is redefined at the beginning of each chapter. This can become repetitive for the reader if they are reading the book cover to cover, but may be beneficial if the reader is skipping to a specific chapter.


I would recommend this book to anyone is has an interest in empathy, whether or not they have background in neuroscience or psychology. The book conveys its material in an easy to understand format that includes definitions for terms and examples for concepts. Students and neuroscience enthusiasts will enjoy the broad range of empathy related topics covered within this book. Clinicians, counselors, and psychiatrists may find certain key chapters of this book useful for improving patient/therapist interactions. Ph.D.s and experts in the field who have specific interests in the realm of empathy can focus on a particular subject within the book since there are well defined chapters and subsections. Researchers in the field of psychology and neuroscience will appreciate the many scientific studies the book uses as supporting material to back scientific claims.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A solid book on the neuroscience of empathy. 1 April 2011
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
From the Introduction: "The present book is not, and cannot be, the final word on empathy research. It does, however, seek to provide the reader with a representative sampling of current, state-of-the-art knowledge about empathy - knowledge that draws from contemporary work in biology, developmental psychology, cognitive-affective neuroscience and neuropsychology, social and cognitive psychology, and the more applied disciplines of clinical and health psychology." The book is divided into three main sections: 1) Social, Cognitive, and Developmental Perspectives on Empathy; 2) Clinical Perspectives on Empathy; and 3) Evolutionary and Neuroscience Perspectives on Empathy.

There is not much to be said of this book; it is a fairly cut and dry text on the subject of empathy. For anyone interested in, or obligated to study, the neuroscience of empathy I suppose there are worse places to look. The material is accessible and not overly long. Each article presented is well written and kept short and to the point. I don't suppose the average reader would really "enjoy" this book, but I don't think the average reader would consider purchasing this book in the first place. That said, let me add a little caveat lector - I think reading Patricia Churchland's new book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, would add a little perspective to this book; the "Mirror Neuron System" may indeed be a little over-sold here. In summation however, this is still a good read on the neuroscience of empathy.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good book 12 Jun 2013
By HebrewSeeker - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book can be somewhat dry, although the authors do a superb job at condensing important information while omitting lesser important things. If you want a general and semi-detailed overlook at the whole topic of empathy, this book is for you. It is an excellent starting point, from which to venture into more detailed reading/research by way of professional articles.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book regarding Empathy 13 May 2013
By Deborah Bernardo - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The chapters in this book are short and easy to read and understand. It contains lots of insight into empathy and how it works. Very interesting concepts.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Collection of Cutting Edge Perspectives 11 April 2014
By Pavel Somov, Ph.D., psychologist, author of "Lotus Effect" and "Present Perfect" - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Used this book in preparing a manuscript on anger management training, particularly, in regard to bottom-up (non-cogntive) empathy training. I found "The Social Neuroscience of Empathy" to be a great compendium of cutting edge perspective on MNS and empathy science.
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