Empathy in Animals

Empathy in Animals

            Empathy is a well-known emotion in the Human species. The ability to identify, understand and share feelings with another person helps people make social bonds and develop emotional growth within them. Comparative psychology has wondered and studied whether non-human animals share this ability that is thought to be uniquely human. Observations and experiments show that there is evidence of such behavior, tested by behavioral and physiological measures of stress (Edgar). The extent to which animals portray this however varies from species to species, with some animals showing minuscule signs of emotional empathy and others showing more complex cognitive empathy. In a journal titled, “The ‘Russian Doll’ model of empathy and imitation” De Waal explains a model of empathy behavior in nonhuman primates using the comparison of a Russian doll.

The way an animal perceives another of its own species shows implications of whether it has the ability to empathize. In De Waal’s model, each layer related and connects to another, much like a Russian doll with each piece fitting inside each other. This model explains core tools of emotional connection of animals through mapping another animal’s behavior onto an observer animal’s perception (De Waal). The inner core of this model represents mimicry and emotional effects on another animal, and the highest level is when an animal is fully appreciated by another. All layers in between deal with recognizing another animal as a source of feelings and whether or not an animal shows response or reciprocates (care or reassurance) (De Waal). Although De Waal’s model can clearly explain certain behaviors of empathy, many studies are still being put into place to test if the behavior is even possible outside of the human race.

Past studies have shown that Hens display physiological and behavioral responses (such as increased heart rate, hyperthermia and increased vocals) when their chicks are experiencing mild distress (Edgar). Although this observation shows a foundation of the behavior of empathy, experimenters were curious to see if the hens would still display similar responses with unrelated but familiar members of the same species. To test this, an experiment exposed hen to two replicates of four different conditions (control, control with noise of an air puff, air puff to conspecific, and air puff to observer hen) and being physiologically and behaviorally measured 10 minutes before treatment and 10 minutes during treatment to examine if there was a change (Edgar).  This experiment resulted in the observer hen feeling distress to the air puff that was directed that themselves but no behavior or physiological response to the distress of the conspecific. This implies no basis of emotional empathy in that context with that species. However, although this experiment proved empathy to be a foreign idea for Hens, observations of other species show promising implications of empathetic behavior.

One species that shows unique nonhuman animal traits and possible foundations of empathy is the elephant. In a study that collected reports for over 35 years, a group of elephants continuously portrayed signs of understanding the feelings and emotions of each other. Behaviors such as protects and comfort in others, aiding those in need (trouble moving or removing attached foreign objects) and showing signs of mourning when a family member dies all show signs of empathetic understanding (Bates). The elephants in this study showed an understanding of emotional state and intentions even when they were different from their own. Although these findings seem to be rare and not present in every nonhuman species, it shows that other animals have the ability to empathize, giving reason to disbelieve that humans are the only animals capable of doing so, as well as giving reason to further explore, observe and test other species to see if they are also capable of such a seemingly complex behavior




Bates, L.A., Lee, P. C., Njrini, N., Poole, J. H., Sayialel, K., Sayialel, S., &…Byrne, R. W. (2008). Do Elephants Show Empathy?. Journal of Counsciousness Studies, 15(10-11), 204-225.


De Waal, F. M. (2007). The ‘Russian doll’ Model of Empathy and Imitation. In S. Bråten (Ed.), On being moved: From mirror neurons to empathy (pp. 49-69). Amsterdam Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Company.


Edgar, J. L., Paul, E. S., Harris, L., Penturn, S., Nicol, C. J. (2012). No Evidence for Emotional Empathy in Chickens Observing Familiar Adult Conspecifics. Plos ONE, 7(2), doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031542



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