Chimpanzees have empathetic personalities, new research reveals

Scientists have shown that chimpanzees demonstrate empathetic tendencies – the ability to share and understand the emotions of others – but just like in humans these ‘caring’ personality traits vary significantly from one individual to another.

Chimpanzee conflict (Credit - Dr Teresa Romero)

The new study, published today (Friday 18th August) in the journal Nature Communications, found that in the aftermath of a conflict chimpanzee bystanders spontaneously approach and comfort distressed victims. This behaviour, known as consolation, is the best-documented marker of empathetic-concern in nonhuman animals.

The research, led by scientists from a number of international universities including Emory University in Atlanta, USA, and the University of Lincoln, UK, shows that individual chimpanzees comfort others in distress consistently over their lifespan, providing the first scientific evidence in a species besides humans of an empathetic personality.

The scientists studied eight years of behavioural data from two large chimpanzee social groups, which included observations of more than 3,000 conflict interactions in 44 chimpanzees. They found that individual chimpanzees differ in the amount of empathy they show – just as some humans are extremely caring and concerned, while others can be largely indifferent. The team found that chimpanzees which show higher consolatory tendencies are more socially competent and integrated, and they also found that, similar to the findings of recent research into other ape species but in contrast to many observations of human empathy, older chimpanzees are less likely to console others than younger individuals. Chimpanzee consolation (Credit - Dr Teresa Romero)

Overall, given the link between consolation and empathy, these findings help to explain the development of individual socio-cognitive and emotional abilities in one of our closest animal relatives.

Dr Teresa Romero, Senior Lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, explained: “The strength of this study is that we observed the behavioural reactions of chimpanzees for over the course of almost a decade, and use the same behavioural measure over the lifespan of individuals, from infancy to adulthood.”

Professor Frans de Waal of Emory University said: “It is rare that apes are followed over enough time to establish the stability of traits, such as empathy. We now know that, like us, they have substantial temperamental differences in this regard.”

Dr Christine Webb, also from Emory University, explained how the research findings differ from those on human personalities: “While the assumption in humans is that empathy increases in frequency and complexity across development, our study shows that younger chimpanzees are more likely than adults to engage in consolation. Measuring empathy directly through behaviours rather than questionnaires may yield new insights to the phenomenon across species.”

The paper is now available to read online.