Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule

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We remember the admonition of our mothers: “Treat others as you want them to treat you.” But what if being nice was something we were inclined by nature to do anyway?  Renowned neuroscientist Donald Pfaff upends our entire understanding of ethics and social contracts with an intriguing proposition: the Golden Rule is hardwired into the human brain.

Pfaff, the researcher who first discovered the connections between specific brain circuits and certain behaviors, contends that the basic ethics governing our everyday lives can be traced directly to brain circuitry. Writing with popular science journalist Sandra J. Ackerman, he explains in this clear and concise account how specific brain signals induce us to consider our actions as if they were directed at ourselves—and subsequently lead us to treat others as we wish to be treated. Brain hormones are a part of this complicated process, and The Neuroscience of Fair Play discusses how brain hormones can catalyze behaviors with moral implications in such areas as self-sacrifice, parental love, friendship, and violent aggression.  

Drawing on his own research and other recent studies in brain science, Pfaff offers a thought-provoking hypothesis for why certain ethical codes and ideas have remained constant across human societies and cultures throughout the world and over the centuries of history. An unprecedented and provocative investigation, The Neuroscience of Fair Play offers a new perspective on the increasingly important intersection of neuroscience and ethics.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Higher Education Supplement - Paul J. Zak
"For those interested in the biology of behaviour in human and non-human animals, Pfaff provides a feast of tightly woven facts. . . . Although there is substantial variation across people in the mechanisms supporting fair play, Pfaff argues persuasively that nearly all humans have the capacity for empathy and this is an essential component of our human nature."—Paul J. Zak, Times Higher Education Supplement
CHOICE - C. A. Lindgren
"Offers a thought-provoking account of how far modern neuroscience has come in explaining aspects of the human condition that have historically fallen exclusively under the domains of nonscientific disciplines, such as philosophy or religion. . . . He concludes by offering some timely suggestions for applying the ideas outlined in the book to solving some of society's social ills. . . . The overall message is powerful. . . . This would be an excellent resource to use in an interdisciplinary course on morality or ethics. Recommended."—C.A. Lindgren, Choice

Scientific American Mind - Kurt Kleiner
“This new theory is elegant in that it eliminates the need for complex altruism circuits in the brain. . . . He has succeeded in advancing a testable theory that he and other neuroscientists can start to untangle in the lab. If he is right, it could turn out that the Golden Rule isn’t merely religious teaching. It could be encoded in the very circuitry of our brains.”—Kurt Kleiner, Scientific American Mind
Boston Globe - Barbara Fisher
"Pfaff marshals a vast number of different kinds of studies to buttress his premises and sustains a persuasive argument throughout."—Boston Globe
Edward O. Wilson
"Donald W. Pfaff, a leading researcher in this intermediate field, delivers a crystal-clear tour through the relevant technical intricacies of the science. The ideas that emerge are among the most important in their relevance to human affairs."—Edward O. Wilson, from the Foreword
Marc Hauser
"Every religion delivers the golden rule, sometimes as DO unto others, and at other times as DON'T do to others. Given this universality, it would surely be insanity to argue that the golden rule is a cultural construct! Pfaff gives us the clear alternative: the golden rule is part of human nature, part of what evolution handed off as one of our essential moral building blocks. Read this book and enjoy a masterful tour of how your brain computes moral rights and wrongs in the service of creating a fair society."—Marc Hauser, Harvard College Professor and author of Moral Minds
Bruce S. McEwen
"The Neuroscience of Fair Play is a highly readable and insightful look at brain systems that mediate aggression, fear, compassion, love, judgment, and decision making and determine how we behave, either according to the Golden Rule or otherwise. Donald Pfaff is a pre-eminent neuroscientist with the breadth of knowledge and depth of thinking that enables him to move easily between molecules and complex behaviors. He also has a rare ability to explain science in an entertaining and highly understandable way."—Bruce S. McEwen, professor and head of the Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University and author of The End of Stress As We Know It
Frans de Waal
"Our brains do more than reason and think. They are also home to ancient processes of fear, aggression, love, and affection. In lucid prose, an eminent neuroscientist explains how emotions guide human morality, thus breaking with centuries of emphasis on rationality."—Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape
Science - Prashanth Ak
The Neuroscience of Fair Play successfully highlights important issues in a young field of inquiry.”—Science
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781932594270
  • Publisher: Dana Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2007
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald W. Pfaff is professor and head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Behavior at the Rockefeller University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is the author of sixteen books.

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