The present functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study sought to characterize neural processes related to aspects of empathy and social cognition. It has been hypothesized previously that merely observing emotions in others automatically activates associated representations of the emotional state in the observer. We tested this prediction by presenting drawings depicting either one or two persons in an emotionally charged or neutral situation. Importantly and in contrast to previous imaging studies on empathy or social cognition, we did not instruct participants to assess the depicted persons' feelings or thoughts, but told them to simply watch the pictures to be able to perform a memory task unrelated to the main experimental question. This novel design allowed us to assess automatically elicited empathy-related effects (contrasting emotional and neutral situations) and to compare them with automatic social cognitive processes (contrasting stimuli with two persons vs. one person). We observed empathy-related increased hemodynamic responses in areas previously shown to be related to emotion processing (ventromedial and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, PFC) and to social cognitive processes (superior temporal sulcus, STS, and medial PFC). The medial PFC activation was negatively correlated with participants' predisposition to feel distressed in emotional social situations, suggesting that interindividual differences in these higher-order functions might also impact empathic responses in social interactions.