Recent research points to shared capabilities among all mammals for consolation, trust, and empathy. It appears from the various studies that animals from prairie voles, highly monogamous zebra finches that mimic the stress state of their partner, and chimps all make friends, trust, and empathize with others.
A research study reviewed in the Science magazine, January 22, 2016 issue showed that prairie voles (rodents) exhibit a consoling response when other voles (cage-mates) in their environment are showing stress. An abstract of the study said “Consolation behavior toward distressed others is common in humans and great apes, yet our ability to explore the biological mechanisms underlying this behavior is limited by its apparent absence in laboratory animals.” This study was conducted using laboratory animals.
The study goes on to observe that the prairie vole, “greatly increases partner-directed grooming toward familiar conspecifics (but not strangers) that have experienced an unobserved stressor, provide social buffering. Prairie voles also match the fear response, anxiety-related behaviors, and corticosterone increase of the stressed cage-mate, suggesting an empathy mechanism.”
Frans De Waal, PhD was a co-author of this study that was conducted at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He said, “Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important.” Consolation behavior in the voles is when one animal experiences a calming contact with a distressed colleague.
Chimpanzees base their friendships on trust of a familiar animal. The Max Planck Institute conducted this study at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. It found that opposed to common wisdom, the Chimpanzee environment is not filled with aggression, conflict, competition and dominance.
Chimpanzees are given a choice of using a friendship or “trust rope” or a “no-trust rope” to access food. An article appearing in the January 15, 2016 Christian Science Monitor described the research by stating “The no-trust rope yields immediate access to food that the chimp doesn’t particularly like. But if the chimp pulls the trust rope, a box of high quality food – chimpanzee favorites like apple and bananas – moves to its partner. The partner eats half, but is then faced with a decision.
The article continues by stating “A ‘trustworthy’ chimp will send the other half of the food back to its partner, while an ‘untrustworthy’ chimp will keep the food for itself.” Chimps “were significantly more likely to share with friends. So friendship, like many supposedly human concepts, may be deeply rooted in evolutionary history. Individuals with friends live longer, have more children and [have] lower stress-levels.”
Yet another research effort looked at Zebra finches who mate for life and consequently have a very close partnership with with their mate. Research shows they enjoy a great sympathy between each other. For example, the research as reported in the December 11, 2015 issue of Science magazine showed that a female, only exposed to stress in the birdcall of her mate, would shift her physiological state to match her partner’s level of stress.
At the same time research into the human brain shows consistency in the physical reaction to a highly altruistic act. Research shows that empathy-based altruism is characterized by a connection from the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to the anterior insula (AI) that also invokes connectivity to the ventral striatum. This format in the brain always represents altruistic behavior.
The innate quality of caring for one another appears to cross all higher organisms from mammals to rodents to birds. Empathy and sympathy appear to be universal and something ingrained or genetic within everything. We need to realize this is an aspect of human beings that we need to accentuate. We should use these higher impulses as the standard to endorse a human being as having value. These are the impulses we should look for and reward in our leaders and ourselves.
Use the following links to gain additional information or access the original research that was used to write this article.