When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Enjoy unlimited access to quality journalism.

Limited time offer

Get your 30-day free trial!
Switzerland

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
Chimpanzees sharing a very human hug
Pascaline Minet

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."

[rebelmouse-image 27089273 alt="""" original_size="1024x768" expand=1]

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.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

Ideas

How U.S. Airlines Are Doing Cuba's Dirty Work On American Soil

American and Southwest Airlines have been refusing to allow Cubans on board flights if they've been blacklisted by the government in Havana.

How U.S. Airlines Are Doing Cuba's Dirty Work On American Soil

Boarding a plane in Camaguey, Cuba

Santiago Villa

On Sunday, American Airlines refused to let Cuban writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez board a Miami flight bound for Havana. It was at least the third time this year that a U.S. airline refused to let Cubans on board to return to their homeland after Havana circulated a government "blacklist" of critics of the regime. Clearly undemocratic and possibly illegal under U.S. law, the airlines want to make sure to cash in on a lucrative travel route, writes Colombian journalist Santiago Villa:

-OpEd-

Imagine for a moment that you left your home country years ago because you couldn't properly pursue your chosen career there. It wasn't easy, of course: Your profession is not just singularly demanding, but even at the top of the game you might not be assured a stable or sufficient income, and you've had to take on second jobs, working in bars and restaurants.

This chosen vocation is that of a writer or journalist, or perhaps an artist, which has kept you tied to your homeland, often the subject of your work, even if you don't live there anymore.

Since leaving, you've been back home several times, though not so much for work. Because if you did, you would be followed in cars and receive phone calls to let you know you are being watched.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest