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Empathy chimpanzees offer is key to understanding human engagement

Date:
March 11, 2014
Source:
Emory Health Sciences
Summary:
New findings show that chimpanzees exhibit flexibility in their empathy, just as humans do. This may help explain the evolution of how and when humans engage with others and choose to offer flexibility, and how we can do so more.

Katie yawning.
Credit: Image courtesy of Yerkes National Primate Research Center

In their latest study about empathy, Yerkes National Primate Research Center researchers Matthew Campbell, PhD, and Frans de Waal, PhD, have shown chimpanzees exhibit flexibility in their empathy, just as humans do. These findings, which appear in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, may help explain the evolution of how and when humans engage with others and choose to offer flexibility, and how we can do so more.

While it's been long known that human empathy can extend to family, friends, strangers and even other species, it has been unknown until now whether nonhumans are similarly broad in their empathic responses. To answer this question, Campbell and de Waal used contagious yawning as a measure of involuntary empathy. According to Campbell, "Copying the facial expressions of others helps us to adopt and understand their current state."

The researchers found chimpanzees showed contagious yawning to familiar chimpanzees, familiar humans, and unfamiliar humans, but not to unfamiliar chimpanzees or an unfamiliar species (gelada baboons). "That humans known and unknown elicited empathy similarly to group members, and more than unknown chimpanzees, shows flexibility in engagement," says Campbell. "We can use this information to try to influence this flexible response in order to increase empathy toward unfamiliar chimpanzees, and we hope we will be able to apply such knowledge to humans as well," Campbell continues.

This study is a follow up to a study published in 2009 that showed contagious yawning in chimpanzees is not just a marker of sleepiness or boredom, but that it is a sign of a social connection between individuals. Campbell and de Waal have continued their work to better understand empathy as a window into social and emotional connections between individuals in order to help break down barriers among humans.

This study was funded by the FIRST program, NIH/NIGMS (USA) IRACDA grant no. K12 GM000680, the National Center for Research Resources P51RR000165 and is currently supported by the Office of Research Infrastructure Programs/OD P51OD011132, and the Living Links Center at Yerkes.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Emory Health Sciences. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. M. W. Campbell, F. B. M. de Waal. Chimpanzees empathize with group mates and humans, but not with baboons or unfamiliar chimpanzees. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2014; 281 (1782): 20140013 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0013

Cite This Page:

Emory Health Sciences. "Empathy chimpanzees offer is key to understanding human engagement." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 March 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140311124202.htm>.
Emory Health Sciences. (2014, March 11). Empathy chimpanzees offer is key to understanding human engagement. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140311124202.htm
Emory Health Sciences. "Empathy chimpanzees offer is key to understanding human engagement." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140311124202.htm (accessed October 20, 2014).

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