Empathy chimpanzees offer is key to understanding human engagement

Mar 11, 2014
Rita is watching videos of familiar chimpanzees yawning. Credit: Emory University

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 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 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.

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First Rowena and then Liza watch videos of familiar chimpanzees yawning. Credit: Emory University

This study is a follow up to a study published in 2009 that showed 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 as a window into social and emotional connections between individuals in order to help break down barriers among humans.

Explore further: As chimpanzees grow, so does yawn contagion

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Squirrel
1 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2014
Yawning has nothing to do with the empathy problem in understanding our species. Chimps but we are not are ruthlessly competitive without any sympathy when it comes to food--even chimps mothers ignore the pleading of their offspring. Humans are extraordinarily generous with food to the most vulnerable--the ill, the injured, and the young--even in famines. Chimps don't show that kind of empathy--we do not why, and this research isn't on the road that will tell us.