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Jean Decety is an American and French neuroscientist specializing in developmental neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and social neuroscience. His research focuses on the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms underpinning social cognition, particularly emotion, empathy, moral reasoning, altruism, pro-social behavior, and more generally interpersonal relationships. He is Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.

Jean Decety
Dr. Jean Decety - University of Cape Town, South Africa, February 2012.jpg
Born 1960
Residence Chicago, United States
Nationality French and American
Alma mater Université Claude Bernard, Lyon; France
Known for
Scientific career
Fields Cognitive neuroscience, Developmental neuroscience, Social neuroscience
Institutions University of Chicago (Professor)
Notable students Sarah-Jayne Blakemore[1]



Jean Decety obtained three advanced master's degrees in 1985 (neuroscience), in 1986 (cognitive psychology), and in 1987 (biological and medical engineering science) and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1989 (neurobiology) from the Université Claude Bernard. After receiving his doctorate, he worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Karolinska Hospital (Sweden) in the Departments of Neurophysiology and Neuroradiology. He then joined the National Institute for Medical Research (INSERM) in Lyon (France) until 2001.

Decety is currently professor at the University of Chicago and the College, with appointments in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience. He is the Director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, and the Child NeuroSuite. Decety is a member of the Committee on Computational Neuroscience and the Center for Integrative Neuroscience and Neuroengineering.

Editorial activitiesEdit

Decety served as the founder and editor-in-chief of the journal Social Neuroscience between 2006 and 2012, and he is on the editorial boards of Development and Psychopathology, The European Journal of Neuroscience, The Scientific World Journal, Frontiers in Emotion Science, and Neuropsychologia. With his colleague John Cacioppo, Decety played an instrumental role in the creation of the Society for Social Neuroscience in 2010.

Empathy, moral reasoning and prosocial behaviorEdit

Decety studies the neurobiological and psychological mechanisms that guide social decision-making, moral reasoning, empathy and justice motivation. As well as how these abilities develop in children, are shaped by life experiences and group dynamics. Decety conducts research on various aspects of empathy, including its evolutionary origins,[2][3] its development in young children,[4] as well as how empathy is modulated by the social environment and interpersonal relationships.[5][6]

Decety investigates the development of moral behavior, generosity and distributive justice in children across South East Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America, and South Africa. [7][8][9][10] He argues that empathy is not necessarily a direct avenue to moral behavior, and that it can lead to immoral behavior.[11] The influence that empathy and justice exert on one another is complex, and empathy can induce partiality and threaten justice principles.[12]

Based on empirical research combining functional neuroimaging (fMRI and EEG, developmental psychology, and individual differences in personality traits, Decety argues that in order to promote justice, it may be more effective to encourage perspective taking and reasoning than emphasizing emotional sharing with the misfortune of others.[13][14]

While empathy plays an important role in motivating caring for others and in guiding moral behavior, Decety's research demonstrates that this is far from being systematic or irrespective to the social identity of the targets, interpersonal relationships, and social context. He proposes that empathic concern (aka compassion has evolved to favor kin and members of one own social group, can bias social decision-making by valuing one single individual over a group of others, and this can frontally conflict with principles of fairness and justice.[15]

Empathy and psychopathyEdit

A lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of psychopathy. As a consequence, Decety investigates atypical socioemotional processing and moral judgment in forensic psychopaths with a mobile MRI scanner, because they provide a natural model in which emotional and attentional processes are altered, enabling identification of downstream effects, including the extent to which empathy is a critical input for caring.[16] His work shows that the higher the level of psychopathy, the less neural activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex in response to perceiving interpersonal harm as well as expressions of physical and emotional pain.[17][18] This region is attributed with various functions related to valuation, affect regulation and social cognition.[19]

Religion and moralityEdit

The relationship between religion and morality has long been a contentious one.[20][21][22][23] Does religion make us more moral? Is it necessary for morality? A common sense notion and a theoretical assertion from religious metaphysics, is that religiosity has a causal connection and a positive association with moral behaviors.[24] However, some research indicates that religiousness is directly related to increased intolerance for, and punitive attitudes towards, interpersonal offenses.[25] This includes the probability of supporting harsh penalties. For instance, within Christianity, fundamentalists tend to be more punitive, and advocate for harsher corrections, than non-fundamentalists.[26]

Decety was interested in understanding the influence of religiosity on children’s altruism as a way to provide insights about how prosocial behavior is shaped by gene-culture coevolution. In one study, Decety and colleagues examined the relationships between household religiosity and prosociality in 1,151 children aged 5-12 years sampled from six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and USA). The study utilized behavioral measures of punitive tendencies when evaluating interpersonal harm, moral judgment, empathy, and generosity (Dictator Game). The authors found that children from religious households believe that interpersonal harm is more “mean” and deserving of harsher punishment than non-religious children.[27] They also reported that religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism at least when generosity is spontaneously directed to an anonymous beneficiary. The study received widespread attention from news outlets and social media, with news outlets citing it as evidence that religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts.[28][29][30]

A subsequent re-analysis of the study's Dictator Game data by another group found an error in their original statistical model, where country was coded as a continuous rather than categorical variable."[31] Once this was corrected, most of the associations observed with religious affiliation appeared to be artifacts of between-country differences, though children from highly religious households do appear slightly less generous than those from moderately religious ones.

Edited booksEdit

  • Social Cognition: Development Across the Life Span (2017). Jessica A. Sommerville and Jean Decety (Eds). New York: Routledge.
  • The Moral Brain: A Multidisciplinary Perspective (2015). Jean Decety and Thalia Wheatley (Eds). Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • New Frontiers in Social Neuroscience (2014). Jean Decety and Yves Christen (Eds). Berlin: Springer.
  • Empathy - from Bench to Bedside (2012). Jean Decety (Ed). Cambridge: MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • The Oxford Handbook of Social Neuroscience (2011). Jean Decety and John T. Cacioppo (Eds). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • The Social Neuroscience of Empathy (2009). Jean Decety and William Ickes (Eds). Cambridge: MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity: Entering Others' Worlds (2007). Jean Decety and C. Daniel Batson (Eds). Hove: Psychology Press.


  1. ^ Blakemore, S.; Decety, J. (2001). "REVIEW: From the perception of action to the understanding of intention". Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2 (8): 561–567. doi:10.1038/35086023. PMID 11483999. 
  2. ^ Decety, J. (2011). The neuroevolution of empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1231, 35-45.
  3. ^ Decety, J., Norman, G. J., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy. Progress in Neurobiology, 98, 38-48.
  4. ^ Decety, J. (2010). The neurodevelopment of empathy in humans. Developmental Neuroscience, 32, 257-267.
  5. ^ Decety, J., Echols, S. C., & Correll, J. (2010). The blame game: the effect of responsibility and social stigma on empathy for pain. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22, 985-997.
  6. ^ Cheng, Y., Chen, C. Y., Lin, C. P., Chou, K. H., & Decety, J. (2010). Love hurts: an fMRI study. NeuroImage, 51, 923-929.
  7. ^ Cowell, J. M., Lee, L., Malcolm-Smith, S., Selcuk, B., Zhou, X., & Decety, J. (2016). The development of generosity and moral cognition across five cultures. Developmental Science, epub ahead of print.
  8. ^ Cowell, J. M., & Decety, J. (2015). The neuroscience of implicit moral evaluation and its relation to generosity in early childhood. Current Biology, 25, 1-5.
  9. ^ Li, Y., Li, H., Decety, J., & Lee, K. (2013). Experiencing a natural disaster alters children’s altruistic giving. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1686-1695.
  10. ^ Yoder, K. J., & Decety, J. (2014). The good, the bad, and the just: Justice sensitivity predicts neural response during moral evaluation of actions performed by others. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(12), 4161-4166.
  11. ^ Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). Friends or foes: Is empathy necessary for moral behavior? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 525-537.
  12. ^ Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). The complex relation between morality and empathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(7), 337-339.
  13. ^ Decety, J., & Yoder, K. J. (2015). Empathy and motivation for justice: Cognitive empathy and concern, but not emotional empathy, predicts sensitivity to injustice for others. Social Neuroscience, epub ahead of print.
  14. ^ Yoder, K., J., & Decety, J. (2014). Spatiotemporal neural dynamics of moral judgments: A high-density EEG/ERP study. Neuropsychologia, 60, 39-45.
  15. ^ Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2015). Empathy, justice and moral behavior. American Journal of Bioethics – Neuroscience, 6(3), 3-14.
  16. ^ Decety, J., Chen, C., Harenski, C. L., & Kiehl, K. A. (2013). An fMRI study of affective perspective taking in individuals with psychopathy: imagining another in pain does not evoke empathy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 489.
  17. ^ Decety, J., Skelly, L. R., & Kiehl, K. A. (2013). Brain response to empathy-eliciting scenarios in incarcerated individuals with psychopathy. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(6), 638-645.
  18. ^ Decety, L., Skelly, L. R., Yoder, K. J., & Kiehl, K. (2014). Neural processing of dynamic facial expressions in psychopaths. Social Neuroscience, 9, 36-49.
  19. ^ Delgado, M. R., Beer, J. S., Fellows, L. K., Huettel, S. A., Platt, M. L., Quirk, G. J., & Schiller, D. (2016). Viewpoints: dialogues on the functional role of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 19(12), 1545-1552.
  20. ^ Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2014). Psychological perspectives on religion and religiosity. Hove: Routlege.
  21. ^ McKay, R., & Whitehouse, H. (2015). Religion and morality. Psychological Bulletin, 141, 447-473.
  22. ^ Shariff, A.F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean gods make good people. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 21, 85-96.
  23. ^ Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2009). Morality without god? New York: Oxford University Press.
  24. ^ Galen, L. W. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin 138, 876-906.
  25. ^ Batson, C. D., Schoenrade, P. A., & Ventis, W. L. (1993). Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  26. ^ Applegate, B. K., Cullen, F. T., Fisher, B. S., & Vander Ven, T. (2000). Forgiveness and fundamentalism: Reconsidering the relationship between correctional attitudes and religion. Criminology 38, 719-754.
  27. ^ Decety, Jean; Cowell, Jason M.; Lee, Kang; Mahasneh, Randa; Malcolm-Smith, Susan; Selcuk, Bilge; Zhou, Xinyue (2015-11-16). "The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children's Altruism across the World". Current Biology. 25 (22): 2951–2955. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056. 
  28. ^ "Altmetric – The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children's Altruism across the World". Retrieved 2017-10-23. 
  29. ^ correspondent, Harriet Sherwood Religion (2015-11-06). "Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-10-23. 
  30. ^ Gross, Rachel E. (2015-11-06). "Are Religious Children More Selfish?". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2017-10-23. 
  31. ^ Shariff, Azim F.; Willard, Aiyana K.; Muthukrishna, Michael; Kramer, Stephanie R.; Henrich, Joseph (2016-08-08). "What is the association between religious affiliation and children's altruism?". Current Biology. 26 (15): R699–R700. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.06.031. PMID 27505237. 

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