Not surprisingly, there is scientific evidence indicating empathy in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees.
Researchers from LJMU’s School of Biological Sciences in the UK and colleagues analyzed how chimpanzees behave after a fight. They found that third-party chimpanzees will try to console the ‘victim’ of the fight by grooming, hugging and kissing them.
Although this behaviour has been witnessed in chimpanzees since the 1970s, anthropologists previously believed that the motivation behind it was purely selfish – with the consoling chimp wanting to pre-empt further violence.
However, this study challenged this assumption. ”If that was the case then there shouldn’t be a calming effect from the consolation, rather, just a reduction of aggression,” said Professor Aureli, adding ”I think it’s much more likely that it is done for the benefit of the others rather than the third party.”
Co-author Orlaith Fraser said: ”Unlike previous studies, this research demonstrates the link between consolation and stress reduction, showing the potential for empathy in chimpanzees as opposed to their more renowned aggressive behaviour.”
Apes are thought to be the only primates to show consolation, and it has been speculated that this behaviour is perhaps equivalent to what in human children is called ‘sympathetic concern’. One of the world’s leading primatologists, Professor Frans de Waal, of Emory University in Atlanta, USA, said: ”The behaviour of young children that falls under sympathetic concern (touching, hugging of distressed family members) is in fact identical to that of apes, and so the comparison is not far-fetched. The present study is significant in that it suggests that the function of this behaviour in chimpanzees is similar to humans, in that it comforts the other.”
The allegedly telltale signs of nervousness in humans include scratching ourselves or hand-to-face movements. Similarly, when our chimp cousins find themselves in stressful situations they often resort to self-grooming and self-scratching. Fraser and Professor Aureli found that after a fight, these actions occurred with increasing frequency, but when the non-aggressive chimp entered the fray, the agitated ape soon stopped their nervous movements.
Interestingly, the study also found that apes with mutually beneficial relationships will try to calm each other down. Professor Aureli explained: ”It’s what we call a valuable relationship – basically those animals that are good friends, not just individuals that spend a lot of time together or groom one another, but ones that actually have some value to one another. For example, they help one another in fights, tolerate one another around limited resources, share food, and collaborate.”
However, whether or not non-human animals can empathise is still controversial and divisive among scientists. Fraser said that as well as altruistic behaviour, our closest evolutionary ancestors could potentially have an empathetic side. She said: ”Showing the calming effect of consolation is one of the building blocks from which we can learn more about the emphatic abilities of animals.”
Professor de Waal added that this study removes any previous doubt that consolation provides relief to distressed parties after conflict: ”The evidence is compelling and makes it likely that consolation behaviour is indeed an expression of empathy.”
Other researchers have compared empathy in humans to empathy in chimpanzees and concluded that ‘Chimpanzees are arguably capable of empathizing with others’ emotional states’.
Sanjida O’Connell from University College London in the UK analysed behavioural events that may indicate empathy in chimpanzees and concluded that “From this preliminary analysis it seems the chimpanzees may be capable of showing empathy across a wide range of circumstances.”
- Fraser O.N, Stahl D and Aureli F 2008 Stress reduction through consolation in chimpanzees.
- Koksi S.E and Sterck E. H. M 2010 Empathic chimpanzees: A proposal of the levels of emotional and cognitive processing in chimpanzee empathy. The European journal of developmental psychology vol. 7, no 1, 38-66
- O’Connell S. M 1995 Empathy in chimpanzees: Evidence for theory of mind? Primates, Volume 36, Number 3, 397-410