Leaders in social neuroscience:
An interview with Dr. Jean Decety

Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry
University of Chicago

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Jean Decety is a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, where he directs the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Brain Research Imaging Center, and Child NeuroSuite. As founding editor of the journal Social Neuroscience and the current President of the Society for Social Neuroscience, Dr. Decety has been a major force in the field’s development. Dr. Decety employs a diverse range of neuroscience methods in humans, such as fMRI, DTI, and hormones, as well as animal models, to study empathy and moral judgment.


Why is a social neuroscience approach important?

Social neuroscience is, to me, the most exciting contemporary scientific endeavor.  It is thrilling because the mechanisms underlying social cognition and interactions can now be scientifically examined.  Moreover, this knowledge speaks to our humanity, impacts our everyday lives and informs the world in which we live.  Powerful examples include: the influence of poverty on brain development, how we value fairness and justice, why certain socioeconomic conditions promote the formation of gangs and violence, how can we reduce group favoritism, etc.

Humans are a hypersocial species and social behavior is the result of complex interactions and integrations between biological and social factors which emerge early in development and are deeply rooted in evolution.  Social neuroscience capitalizes on biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social behavior, and it uses social and behavioral constructs and data to advance theories of neural organization and function.  To paraphrase Steve Pinker’s brilliant paper in The New Republic, this is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition. Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution.  Social neuroscience will certainly challenge many theories and doctrines in the humanities, which are seldom based on data and empirical research, and too often on ideologies.  For instance, I would so much like to be able to chat with Simone de Beauvoir who wrote in 1949, in her book The Second Sex, “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”, and fill her in with recent studies in the neurobiology on sex and reproduction which clearly demonstrate that she was wrong.  What about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous view that human beings are solitary by nature?   We are just the opposite, hypersocial!  We could not survive as a species without others.


Are animal models and evolutionary biology important?

Even though humans are what we’re ultimately interested in, let’s not forget that evolution is a continuous process and that we share a lot of genes with other animals, even with simple organisms such as the worm C. elegans.  For instance, oxytocin has not evolved as a cuddle hormone or a love drug in humans but in fact belongs to a very old family of molecules that facilitated reproduction in fish (vasotocin).  Oxytocin’s role in facilitating species-typical social and reproductive behaviors is as evolutionarily conserved as its structure and expression, although the specific behaviors that it regulates are quite diverse.  Oxytocin is a good example of what is called exaptation in evolutionary biology, where a preexisting molecule or circuit is used for a new purpose. 

In an interdisciplinary field of study that includes behavioral neuroscience, systems neuroscience, behavioral ecology, and social psychology, and which seeks to understand how biological systems implement social behavior, we need to understand how the molecular and cellular mechanisms underpinning social interaction have evolved across species.  Thus, animal models and comparative research are extremely important for translation, and they play an essential role in social neuroscience.


What is your favorite social neuroscience finding or paper?

I have two favorite papers, both written by John Cacioppo in 1992 and in 2002. I strongly recommend any student interested in social neuroscience to read them as they brilliantly lay out the theoretical foundation of the field.  Twenty years later they are still accurate and an excellent source of inspiration, and I haven’t found anything that matches the depth and breadth of these two publications. 

Now regarding one of the most exciting findings, I would point out the work of Canadian neuroscientist Michael Meaney who has pioneered behavioral epigenetic research, initially focusing on the relationship between early maternal care and stress response in rat pups.  His research established a causal relationship between maternal care and behavioral epigenetic programming with cross fostering of pups by various mothers of differing maternal behaviors.  The translation of this research into our own species has clear implications for mental health education and general infant-caregiver relationships.  It is also a great example of the dynamic interaction between social interaction and gene expression.


What do you see as the biggest challenge for the field?

As with any emerging field we begin with micro or local theories (for example some micro-theories that speak to my own work on empathy and moral sensitivity: embodied perception, neural reuse theories, dual-system theory, etc.).  The challenge moving forward is to figure out how to unify these pieces into a complete and comprehensive puzzle, generating a macro-level theory of social neuroscience.


Which of your papers are most proud of? Why?

What a difficult question! I wished I was asked which of my “production” I am the most proud of, to which I will not hesitate to say my two sons Nathan and Glenn!  Regarding my academic production, I am never satisfied with anything, empirical and theoretical papers alike, because as soon as a paper is published I know that I could have done better, I missed something, etc.  This gives me the impetus to keep going, and a strong motivation to go further.  Having said that, I am very pleased with my last paper, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, on affective perspective taking in incarcerated psychopaths. Because the lack of empathy is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with psychopathy, I am really interested to examine and understand what’s different with psychopathic brains.  This study (and many more to come out of this collaboration with Kent Kiehl) provides new data and provocative ideas on empathy and psychopathy.


What advice would you give to an early-career social neuroscientist?

A successful scholar wants to combine strong methodological skills with serious theoretical thinking.  It is important to be good in at least one methodological domain (e.g., genetics, electrophysiology, neuroendocrinology, functional MRI, MEG), and also not forget to acquire solid knowledge in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology.  The second thing I’ll say is that theories are like castles, it is wiser (and cheaper) to rent them than to own them.  Finally, social neuroscience is intrinsically an interdisciplinary enterprise.  The plurality of disciplines that are involved (from molecular biology to behavioral economics), and the many levels of analysis that need to be articulated make collaborations a necessity and a guarantee of success.


Cacioppo, J. T. (2002). Social neuroscience: Understanding the pieces fosters understanding the whole and vice versa. American Psychologist, 57(11), 831-834.

Cacioppo, J. T. & Berntson, G. G. (1992). Social psychological contributions to the decade of the brain: Doctrine of multilevel analysis. American Psychologist, 47(8), 1019-1028.

Decety, J., Chen, C., Harenski, C., & 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.


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