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date: 15 July 2020

Abstract and Keywords

The biological discussion about altruistic behavior has, quite naturally, been dominated by the reasons for its evolution. This discussion has revealed profound insights into why organisms may produce benefits for others while also benefiting themselves but has neglected the issue of motivation. Evolutionary theory postulates that altruistic behavior evolved for the return-benefits it bears the performer, but for return-benefits to play a motivational role, they would need to be experienced by the organism. Most return-benefits are not. Empathy is an ideal candidate mechanism to underlie so-called directed altruism in mammals (i.e., altruism in response to another’s pain, need, or distress). Evidence is accumulating that this mechanism is phylogenetically ancient. Perception of the emotional state of another individual automatically activates shared representations causing a matching emotional state in the observer. With increasing cognition, such 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.

Keywords: animal altruism, empathy, perception-action mechanism, cooperation, reciprocity, evolution

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