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Some Chimpanzees Are Simply More Compassionate Than Others

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Chimps will comfort each other when one is distressed, showing a certain degree of empathy and compassion. Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Chimpanzees are not exactly well known for their compassionate nature, with multiple accounts of brutal fights, wars, and infanticide. But while researchers found that the level of what they considered to be empathy ranged from individual to individual, some apes consistently comforted others during almost a decade of study. This suggested to the researchers that these chimps simply have more compassionate personalities.

Whether or not other animals, and particularly chimpanzees, can display empathy has always been a bit of a contentious subject. Various observations suggest that apes can indeed empathize with others, from an adult chimp "adopting" a vulnerable genet kitten to the involuntary mimicking of pupil size between group mates.

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Yet few have managed to study a group of chimpanzees over a prolonged period of time while also keeping tabs on which apes display empathetic behavior as a personality type. “It is rare that apes are followed over enough time to establish the stability of traits, such as empathy,” explains Professor Frans de Waal, co-author of the study, in a statement. “We now know that, like us, they have substantial temperamental differences in this regard.”

The researchers studied a group of 44 chimpanzees at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta, and published their results in Nature Communications. During this period of time, they observed how the apes responded to each other after conflict arose within the community. Specifically, they looked at how the apes that were not involved in the disputes comforted those that were in distress once the fight had ended, in what is known as “consolation behavior”.

By analyzing over 3,000 conflicts that came up within the community over the eight years, they were able to track whether or not those displays of consolation behavior were simply one-off displays of empathy or if the same apes consistently comforted those in distress over a longer period of time. This way, they were able to see if some apes simply had more empathetic personalities than others.

The researchers found that consolation tendencies remained stable in individual apes over the study and, even more notably, that they remained stable as apes crossed developmental stages (for example as the infants grew up to become adults). This, the authors suggest, shows that the empathetic behavior seems to be a solid personality trait all of its own. This is important because empathy had previously been explained by social relationships between apes, not as a stable trait in and of itself.

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The findings of the study parallel observations seen in humans, suggesting that once again our two species are more alike than we previously thought.


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