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Mirror Neuron Research and Adam Smith’s Concept of Sympathy: Three Points of Correspondence

21 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2010 Last revised: 15 Mar 2012

L. Lynne Kiesling

Purdue University - Department of Economics

Date Written: February 28, 2012


In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith asserts that humans have an innate interest in the fortunes of other people and desire for sympathy with others. In Smith’s theory, sympathy is an imperfectly reflected combination of emotion and judgment when one observes someone (the agent) in a particular situation, and imagines being that person in that situation. That imagination produces a degree of interconnectedness among individuals. Recent neuroscience research on mirror neurons provides evidence consistent with Smith’s assertion, suggesting that humans have an innate capability to understand the mental states of others at a neural level. A mirror neuron fires both when an agent acts and when an agent observes that action being performed by another; the name derives from the “mirroring” of the action in the brain of the observer. This neural network and the capabilities arising from it have three points of correspondence with important aspects of the Smithian sympathetic process: an agent’s situation as a stimulus or connection between two similar but separate agents, an external perspective on the actions of others, and an innate imaginative capacity that enables an observer to imagine herself as the agent, in the agent’s situation. Both this sympathetic process and the mirror neuron system predispose individuals toward coordination of the expression of their emotions and of their actions. In Smith’s model this decentralized coordination leads to the emergence of social order, bolstered and reinforced by the emergence and evolution of informal and formal institutions grounded in the sympathetic process. Social order grounded in this sympathetic process relies on a sense of interconnectedness and on shared meanings of actions, and the mirror neuron system predisposes humans toward such interconnection.

Keywords: Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, mirror neurons, neuroscience, sympathy, coordination, cooperation

JEL Classification: B10, B31, D02, D03, D87

Suggested Citation

Kiesling, L. Lynne, Mirror Neuron Research and Adam Smith’s Concept of Sympathy: Three Points of Correspondence (February 28, 2012). Review of Austrian Economics, 2012. Available at SSRN: or

L. Kiesling (Contact Author)

Purdue University - Department of Economics ( email )

West Lafayette, IN 47907-1310
United States

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