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.
NEUCHATEL — 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."
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Imitation, a first form of empathy in the animal kingdom — 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 — 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 — 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.