Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yawning and empathy

We are in the final stretch of preparations for a conference on the topic of evolution in the Muslim world at Hampshire College. More details about it tomorrow. In the mean time, here is Frans de Waal on empathy in animals, including humans, and also touches a bit on issues of morality.
How do you define empathy?

Empathy is sometimes defined by psychologists as some sort of high-level cognitive feat where you imagine how somebody else feels or how you would feel in their situation. But my definition is more focused on the whole of empathy, and that includes emotions. If you are sad and crying, it's not just that I try to imagine how you feel. But I feel for you, and I feel with you. (Read about what makes us moral.)

You explain in the book that empathy really starts with our bodies: running together, laughing together, yawning together. So yawning really is contagious?
Yeah. Dogs catch yawns from their owners. Chimpanzees yawn [in response to those] that we show them. Yawn contagion is very interesting because it's a very deep bodily connection between humans or between animals. Humans who have problems with empathy, such as autistic children, don't have yawn contagion. It's either because they don't pay attention to the yawns of others or they're not affected by them. (Read about the secrets inside your dog's mind.)

There's an example in the book where you talk about apes sharing food as a demonstration of empathy. What's in it for the apes who already have food — why do they choose to give it away?
In biology, we usually make a sharp distinction between why things evolved and why animals do things. For example, sex evolved for reproduction. But if you ask people why they have sex, reproduction is not always mentioned. So there's a separation between why the behavior evolved and why the actors actually engage in it. The same is true for altruistic tendencies. You share food with your kin. You share food with individuals who may repay the favor. So the sharing behavior evolved for self-interested reasons. But that doesn't mean that the individual actor, at the moment that he does it, is thinking of the potential benefits.

Is it true that women are more empathetic than men?
All mammals have obligatory maternal care. A female who doesn't respond right away to the distress or the coldness or the hunger or the danger of her young ones is going to lose them. She has to be very sensitive to their emotional state. So if that's the basis, and out of that grew other sensitivities to other individuals who were not offspring, then it's very obvious that there should be a gender bias.

It's interesting that you say certain things one might expect to be related to empathy aren't, necessarily — like fairness.
Fairness is something we started investigating in monkeys. We would have two capuchin monkeys side by side working on a very simple task. One would get cucumber pieces, and the other would get grapes. If they both get cucumber, they're perfectly fine. But if you give one of them grapes, the other guy is all of a sudden not happy anymore. Some explanations of fairness are the golden rule: I treat you well and in a fair manner because that's how I want to be treated, which is a very complex explanation. What we see in monkeys is probably much simpler. It's probably more related to resentment.

If you look at young children, that's exactly where they start. But then by thinking about it, we develop a fairness ideal and a norm, where we say it's better in society if things are fairly distributed. Part of our response at the moment to Wall Street and the bonuses of the bankers is still that simple response: What are they getting, compared to what we are getting? So many people have nothing at the moment, and that enhances our sensitivity to it. But it's basically a monkey reaction.

Read the full interview here.

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