Young Apes Show Empathy Towards One Another Similar To How Human Children Do [STUDY]

By Josh Lieberman on October 16, 2013 6:39 PM EDT

Young bonobos comfort and show empathy towards one another similar to how human children do, new research finds. (Photo: Reuters)

Young bonobos comfort upset peers similar to the way human children do, according to new research. The study found that young apes raised by their mothers are better at comforting their peers than orphan apes are. Bonobos who are able to manage their own emotions are also more likely to try to comfort others with hugs and affection.

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"Young bonobos showed the same connection between the ability to regulate their own emotions and social competence, such as developing friendships and concern for others," wrote study authors Zanna Clay and Frans B. M. de Waal. "Mother-reared juveniles performed far better in this regard than juveniles orphaned at a young age, thus highlighting the importance of the mother-offspring bond."

Clay and de Waal taped bonobos at a Congolese sanctuary which houses mother-raised bonobos as well as orphans rescued from animal trafficking. The pair analyzed video to see how often bonobos comforted distressed peers by touching, embracing and kissing them. They drew their conclusions from 373 post-distress interactions made up of 318 fights and 55 tantrums, and found that bonobos who were raised by their mothers were less anxious than orphan apes, as well as being quicker to comfort others. 

"We found indeed that bonobos who keep screaming and screaming after their own distress are the same ones who show little concern for the distress of others," said de Waal. "Those who overcome distress easily pay more attention to others. We also found that orphans, who have not had the benefit of a mother helping them regulate emotions, are much worse in consoling others than mother-reared bonobos."

De Waal added that the apes' need to have "one's emotional house in order before one is ready to visit the emotional house of another" is similar to how human children behave. This suggests that bonobos, one of our closest primate relatives, regulate their emotions in a human-like fashion. "Empathy allows great apes and humans to absorb the distress of others without getting overly distressed themselves," said de Waal.

The study, "Development of socio-emotional competence in bonobos" was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

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