Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy

Annu Rev Psychol. 2008:59:279-300. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093625.


Evolutionary theory postulates that altruistic behavior evolved for the return-benefits it bears the performer. For return-benefits to play a motivational role, however, they need to be experienced by the organism. Motivational analyses should restrict themselves, therefore, to the altruistic impulse and its knowable consequences. Empathy is an ideal candidate mechanism to underlie so-called directed altruism, i.e., altruism in response to anothers's pain, need, or distress. Evidence is accumulating that this mechanism is phylogenetically ancient, probably as old as mammals and birds. Perception of the emotional state of another automatically activates shared representations causing a matching emotional state in the observer. With increasing cognition, state-matching evolved into more complex forms, including concern for the other and perspective-taking. Empathy-induced altruism derives its strength from the emotional stake it offers the self in the other's welfare. The dynamics of the empathy mechanism agree with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Altruism*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Social Behavior