Successful decision making in a social setting depends on our ability to understand the intentions, emotions and beliefs of others. The mirror system allows us to understand other people's motor actions and action intentions. ‘Empathy’ allows us to understand and share emotions and sensations with others. ‘Theory of mind’ allows us to understand more abstract concepts such as beliefs or wishes in others. In all these cases, evidence has accumulated that we use the specific neural networks engaged in processing mental states in ourselves to understand the same mental states in others. However, the magnitude of the brain activity in these shared networks is modulated by contextual appraisal of the situation or the other person. An important feature of decision making in a social setting concerns the interaction of reason and emotion. We consider four domains where such interactions occur: our sense of fairness, altruistic punishment, trust and framing effects. In these cases, social motivations and emotions compete with each other, while higher-level control processes modulate the interactions of these low-level biases.