Stephanie D. Preston and Frans B. M. de Waal

in The Oxford Handbook of Social Neuroscience

Published in print September 2011 | ISBN: 9780195342161
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology


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  • Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
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This chapter reviews the ultimate and proximate levels of analysis on altruism in humans, hoping to create an overarching framework that places each within a larger context that can stimulate human research informed by extensive empirical research in animals. The available neuroscientific evidence will be reviewed at the end, demonstrating consistently that decisions to help are mediated through overlapping decision and reward circuits that integrate emotional and contextual information into a unified somatic state that guides decisions to help. The chapter first defines the important terms, reviews in brief the most common and widely used biological models of altruism, and then provides evidence for these models. After this, the proximate mechanism will be explicated, largely through indirect evidence regarding the motivational and neural circuits thought to underlie decisions to help. The chapter ends with recommendations for future research to provide more direct evidence for the proximate mechanism, using more ecological tasks that elicit altruistic tendencies while being amenable to concurrent recording with neuroscientific tools.

Keywords: altruism; empathy; reciprocity; consolation; prosocial behavior; sympathy; cooperation

Article.  15335 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Cognitive Neuroscience ; Social Psychology

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