Empathy, The Emotion Humans And Animals Share

Humans aren't the only living beings able to perceive the emotions of others and respond to them. When it comes to empathy, animals and people are more alike than not.

Chimpanzees sharing a very human hug
Pascaline Minet

NEUCHATEL â€" To understand what others are feeling, to identify with their emotions and adapt our behavior to their needs is a critical aspect of our humanity. But where does empathy come from? Is it inherent or acquired? New research on animals and children over the last few years has advanced our scientific knowledge about what stems from nature and what is instilled by culture, suggesting that we are indeed programmed to take care of each other.

It's only been two decades since empathy emerged as a research topic in biology and psychology. For a long time, conventional wisdom held that competition rules the relationships between living beings. According to this idea, inspired by Darwin's theory of "natural selection," each of us acts on their own behalf, leaving only the strongest to survive and reproduce.

But observations of animals set some researchers thinking, among them Frans de Waal, a famous Dutch primatologist who lives in the United States and teaches psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. He was one of the first to be interested in the reconciliation behavior of chimpanzees, who tend to make up after a conflict with a hug and a kiss. When de Waal was studying the meaning of these gestures in the late 1970s, he wondered how they could be explained if individual animals were also competing with one other.

There has been significant study and observation since then, suggesting that there are different forms of empathy in the living world. "Empathy can be in its more primitive form, a type of imitation, as fish do when they are shoaling in a perfectly synchronized way," says Christophe Dufour, curator of Neuchâtel’s Museum of Natural History, which is hosting an exhibition on empathy in animals. "It protects them from some predators."

The yawns of dogs and chimpanzees, for example, spread to their peers. But feelings can be catching too, as when a hen's heart beats faster when she sees her chicks struggling. "The first forms of empathy are likely to have emerged with the relationship between parents and their offspring," Dufour explains. "For many animals, the capacity to sense the needs of their babies to take care of them is the only way for the species to survive."

Imitation, a first form of empathy in the animal kingdom â€" Photo: William Warby

Aiding a peer in need

Experiencing emotions because of others is one thing, but adapting one's actions accordingly is another. Animals such as primates, elephants, horses and crows also demonstrate such behavior â€" especially to comfort. They have the desire to satisfy the needs of another in appropriate and specific ways. Orangutan mothers, for example, understand that their young is stuck in a tree when they hear their baby crying a certain way.

The empathy of animals seems to have various gradations, from mere imitation and pure feeling to changing their behaviors according to certain situations. Human babies undergo the exact same stages of development. The first of them is the process of emotional contagion. Between 1970 to 1980, studies showed that babies started crying when they heard other babies crying, as early as a few days after they were born. But they remained quiet if the cries they heard were those of a chimpanzee or ones produced by a computer. When they are about a year old, babies begin to comfort one another by stroking or giving objects to each other.

A few months later, they begin to recognize the needs of their peers and adapt to them, bringing together reflection and emotion. In an experiment by University of California psychologist Alison Gopnik, an adult explained to an 18-month-old baby that he preferred broccoli over cookies. It's a notion the baby found baffling, because he himself much preferred eating cookies. But afterwards the baby gave broccoli instead of biscuits to the adult. A child just three months younger couldn't do that, no matter what the adult said to convince him that he preferred broccoli.

Even if this study seems simple, it clearly demonstrates that very young children are able to understand that the needs and desires of others are not the same as theirs. That's critical in understanding that empathy exists in humans at a very early stage. The next developmental step happens when children are three or four years old â€" about the time when moral judgment emerges. For example, one child might refuse to help another child if the first perceives the other had been hurtful to someone. Later on, education at home and at school help sharpen these emotional skills.

Throughout the course of history, it is empathy that has given human beings the capacity to collaborate. But we know now that we are not alone: Animals feel this emotion too.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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