The path to empathy

Published online at Plos one yesterday a study done at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center by Campbell and de Waal (2011) has found a link between social groups and empathy in chimpanzees as demonstrated by involuntary yawning responses.

The study is based on the psychological concept of ingroups and outgroups. In humans ingroups are those we see as similar to ourselves and outgroups are those we perceive as different.

Biases involved in ingroup-outgroup discrimination in know to even extend to involuntary responses which includes empathy for pain. This has never been tested in other animals though.

Contagious yawning is thought to be linked with empathy. The study used this assumption to test if chimpanzees’ ingroup-outgroup biases would effect how contagious a yawn can be. In other words if contagious yawning is linking to empathy and empathy is linked to ingroup-outgroup biases within chimpanzees then the chimpanzees should yawn more in response to watching ingroup members yawn than outgroup.

The study used 23 chimpanzees from two separate groups and they were made to watch videos of familiar and unfamiliar individuals yawning. Videos of the same chimps not yawning were also used for control. The chimpanzees yawned more when watching the familiar yawns than the familiar control or the unfamiliar yawns, demonstrating an ingroup-outgroup bias in contagious yawning.

The authors have suggested that these result may be more magnified in chimpanzees than it is in humans as chimpanzees live in much smaller communities than humans and are generally very hostile to those outside of their small social group. Ingroup-outgroup biases are therefore probably much more absolute in chimpanzees.

This study adds empirical evidence to suggest that contagious yawning is subject to empathy. This may have further implications for studying the evolutionary foundations of empathy which obviously has implications for things like theory of mind which is pretty high up on the list for preadaptations for language.


Campbell MW, de Waal FBM (2011) Ingroup-Outgroup Bias in Contagious Yawning by Chimpanzees Supports Link to Empathy. PLoS ONE 6(4): e18283. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018283

Imitation and Social Cognition in Humans and Chimpanzees (I): Imitation, Overimitation, and Conformity

Imitation is often seen as one of the crucial foundations of culture because it is the basis of  social learning and social transmission. Only by imitating others and learning from them did human culture become cumulative, allowing humans to build and improve on the knowledge of previous generations. Thus, it may be one of the key cognitive specializations that sparked the success of the human evolutionary story:

Much of the success of our species rests on our ability to learn from others’ actions. From the simplest preverbal communication to the most complex adult expertise, a remarkable proportion of our abilities are learned by imitating those around us. Imitation is a critical part of what makes us cognitively human and generally constitutes a significant advantage over our primate relatives (Lyons et al. 2007: 19751).

Indeed, there have been some interesting experiments suggesting that the human capacity -and, above all, motivation – for imitation is an important characteristic that separates us from the other great apes.

In a series of intriguing experiments by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and Derek Lyons and his colleagues from Yale University,  young wild-born chimpanzees and Children aged 3 to 4 were shown how to get a little toy turtle/ a reward out of a puzzle box. In the first condition of the experiment the puzzle box was transparent, whereas in the second condition the puzzle box was opaque.

And here’s the catch: both chimpanzees and children were not shown the ‘right’ or ‘simple’  solution to how to get the reward but one that was actually more complicated and involved unnecessary steps.

Continue reading “Imitation and Social Cognition in Humans and Chimpanzees (I): Imitation, Overimitation, and Conformity”

Memory master chimp

Having already written an article about the wonders of Orangutans, I felt that Chimps needed to reclaim their rightful place as the second-best primate. What better way to demonstrate their rightful genius than to beat the presumed kings of short term memory, us mere (and slightly less impressive) humans. Don’t believe me, well watch this great National Geographic clip:

N.B. I know this is hardly cutting edge news, but I was writing a best of 2008 post earlier this year, and forgot to finish writing the post. So, expect a whole slew of articles over the next 24 hours.