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Bonobo Monkeys Feel Empathy Too

Aug 14, 2014 02:25 PM EDT

Though empathy is something generally shared among humans, it is still up for debate whether or not other animals share this trait, and to what extent. Results of a new study indicate that bonobo monkeys have very similar empathetic capabilities to humans.

Although, unlike bonobos, we have a higher level of empathy towards individuals with whom we are close, such as family and friends.

The findings were published in the journal PeerJ.

Since cognitive empathy is difficult to quantify, researchers decided to measure the most basic form of an emotional contagion: the yawn.

We're all familiar with the yawn contagion - when you see someone yawn and then you too finding yourself yawning in response. Humans and bonobos are the only two species known to demonstrate this yawn contagion as a display of empathy, so researchers chose to compare the two.

Over the course of five years, the study's team gathered data on the daily activities of these monkeys and their approaches to the yawn contagion. They specifically focused on how often and how quickly the yawns were replicated.

Interestingly, in both humans and bonobos, individuals responded to yawns of those who were not friends or kin with the same level of frequency. However, humans did respond more promptly after a family member or friend yawned, whereas the level of responsiveness in bonobos did not change.

"Within species, yawn contagion was highest between strongly bonded subjects. Between species, sensitivity to others' yawns was higher in humans than in bonobos when involving kin and friends but was similar when considering weakly-bonded subjects. Thus, emotional contagion is not always highest in humans," the authors wrote.

The difference in the ability to empathize with others between the two species is most likely due to a more complex emotional foundation in humans - for example, cognition and memories - whereas empathy in Bonobos is likely more species-based.

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