Justice for the average Joe: The role of envy and the mentalizing network in the deservingness of others' misfortunes

David S. Chester, Caitlin A.J. Powell, Richard H. Smith, Jane E. Joseph, Gayannee Kedia, David J.Y. Combs, C. Nathan DeWall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


The misfortunes of enviable individuals are met by observers with pleasure whereas those of "average", non-enviable individuals elicit pain. These responses are mirrored in deservingness judgments, as enviable individuals' misfortunes are perceived as deserved and those of non-enviable individuals perceived as undeserved. However, the neural underpinnings of these deservingness disparities remain unknown. To explore this phenomenon, we utilized fMRI to test the hypotheses that (A) non-enviable targets' misfortunes would be associated with activation of brain regions that mediate empathic responding (pain matrix, mentalizing network) and not for enviable targets and (B) that activation of those regions would predict decreases in deservingness judgments. Supporting our first hypothesis, the misfortunes of non-enviable targets (as opposed to good fortunes) were associated with activation of the mentalizing network: medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, temporal-parietal junction, and anterior temporal lobes. Supporting our second hypothesis, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex activation from this contrast was negatively correlated with subsequent reports of how much the non-enviable target deserved his/her misfortune. These findings suggest that non-enviable individuals' misfortunes are perceived as unjust due, in part, to the recruitment of the mentalizing network.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)640-649
Number of pages10
JournalSocial Neuroscience
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence should be addressed to: David S. Chester, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506–0044, USA. E-mail: [email protected] We thank David Powell for his technical help in the running of this study and Nancy Bailey for her help in scheduling participants. This experiment was funded by a Research Support Grant from the University of Kentucky’s Dean of Arts and Sciences and from the Department of Psychology.

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Deservingness
  • Empathy
  • Envy
  • Mentalizing network
  • Misfortune
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Development
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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