Empathy and Fairness
Novartis Foundation Symposia
Author: Novartis Foundation
Empathy is the process that allows us to share the feelings and emotions of others, in the absence of
any direct emotional stimulation to the self. Humans can feel empathy for other people in a wide array of
contexts: for basic emotions and sensation such as anger, fear, sadness, joy, pain and lust as well as for
more complex emotions such as guilt, embarrassment and love. It has been proposed that, for most
people, empathy is the process that prevents us doing harm to others.
Although empathy seems to be an automatic response of the brain to others' emotional reactions, there
are circumstances under which we do not share the same feeling as others. Imagine, for example, that
someone who does the same job as you is paid twice as much. In this case, that person might be very
satisfied with their extra salary, but you would not share this satisfaction. This case illustrates the
ubiquitous feeling of fairness and justice.
Our sense of fairness has also become the focus of modern economic theories. In contrast to the
prominent self-interest hypothesis of classic economy assuming that all people are exclusively motivated
by their self-interest, humans are also strongly motivated by other-regarding preferences such as the
concern for fairness and reciprocity. The notion of fairness is not only crucial in personal interaction with
others in the context of families, workplace or interactions with strangers, but also guides people's
behaviour in impersonal economic and political domains.
This book brings together work from a wide range of disciplines to explain processes underlying empathy
and fairness. The expert contributors approach the topic of empathy and fairness from different
viewpoints, namely those of social cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, evolutionary
anthropology, economics and neuropathology. The result is an interdisciplinary and unitary framework
focused on the neuronal, developmental, evolutionary and psychological basis of empathy and fairness.
With its extensive discussions and the high calibre of the participants, this important new book is
essential reading for anyone with an interest in this topic.
"Recommended to all psychologists as an in-office resource."