Empathy and compassion; also known as kindness or sympathy
“I see that you are in distress, therefore I want to help you.”
Helping in response to need.
Anecdotal evidence of helping, in response to need, in birds and non-human mammals
Helping in response to need, targeted helping, has been observed in many species
of birds and mammals. In the examples listed here, all species share two things
in common: they are social species (they live in groups), and they look after their
CeAnn Lambert, director of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center, witnessed a small act
of heroism in a sink in her garage. Two baby mice had become trapped in the sink
overnight, unable to scramble up the slick sides. They were exhausted and frightened.
Lambert filled a small lid with water and placed it in the sink. One of the mice
hopped over and drank, but the other seemed too exhausted to move and remained crouched
in the same spot. The stronger mouse found a piece of food. He picked it up and
carried it to the other. As the weaker mouse tried to nibble on the food, the stronger
mouse moved the morsel closer and closer to the water until the weaker mouse could
drink. Lambert created a ramp with a piece of wood and the revived mice were soon
able to scramble out of the sink.
... psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler was studying the responses of young children
to the distress of a family member. So she went into the homes of a number of families
and observed how children reacted to parental distress. The behavior of the household
pet turned out to be just as interesting as the behavior of the child. When a family
member feigned sadness or distress – when he or she pretended to cry or choke – the
household dogs would often show more concern than the children, hovering nearby or
nudging their owners, or gently resting their head on the distressed person’s lap.
... Yvette Watt, an artist and animal advocate in Hobart, Tasmania, told Marc the
following story about two dogs. One is a well-fed and happy canine, the other a
sad dog who is always tied to a rope. The happy dog’s daily walk takes him by his
unfortunate neighbor. One night, the happy dog eats his usual dinner, but saves
his meaty bone. The next morning, he carries the meaty bone on his walk, and delivers
it to his tethered friend.
... Knuckles is the only known captive chimpanzee with cerebral palsy, which leaves
him handicapped both physically and mentally and unable to function as a normal member
of his chimpanzee group. What’s surprising about Knuckles is not just that he himself
manages to survive with a debilitating disease, but that the other chimpanzees in
his group treat him differently. The community apparently understands that Knuckles
is different, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Although a young male would
normally be subjected to intimidating displays of aggression by older males, Knuckles
is rarely subjected to such treatment. Even the alpha male is tolerant of Knuckles
and grooms him gently. Knuckles’ friends empathize with him and as a result treat
“Wild Justice – the moral lives of animals” – Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce
Many animals, however, certainly sympathise with each other’s distress or danger.
This is the case even with birds. Captain Stansbury found on a salt lake in Utah
an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat, and must have been well
fed for a long time by his companions. Mr. Blyth, as he informs me, saw Indian crows
feeding two or three of their companions which were blind; and I have heard of an
analogous case with the domestic cock.
“The Descent of Man” – Charles Darwin (via “Wild Justice”)
An old female named Peony spends her days with other chimpanzees in a large outdoor
enclosure near Atlanta, Georgia. On bad days when her arthritis is acting up she
has great trouble walking and climbing. But other females help her out. For example,
Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several chimpanzees
have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her,
places both hands on her ample behind and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort
until Peony joins the rest.
... Washoe, the world’s first language-trained chimp, heard another female scream
and hit the water. Fouts and Mills (1997) describe how Washoe raced across two electric
wires, which normally contained the apes, to reach the victim and waded into the
slippery mud to reach the wildly thrashing female and grab one of her flailing arms
to pull her to safety. This was a courageous act given that chimpanzees do not swim
and are extremely hydrophobic. Washoe barely knew this female, having met her only
a few hours before.
Frans de Waal – “Empathy in Primates and Other Mammals” in “Empathy – from Bench
to Bedside” edited by Jean Decety
Explanations in terms of mental calculations (“If I help her now, she will help me
in the future”) don’t cut it: Why would anyone risk life and limb for such a shaky
prediction? Only immediate emotions can make one abandon all caution.
Unrelated elephants sometimes help one another to their feet as in the description
below of a dying matriarch, named Eleanor, on a Kenyan game reserve:
Eleanor was found with a swollen trunk which she was dragging on the ground. She
stood still for a while, then took a few slow small steps before falling heavily
to the ground. Two minutes later, Grace [matriarch of a different group], rapidly
approached with tail raised and streaming with temporal gland secretion. She lifted
Eleanor with her tusks back on to her feet. Eleanor stood for a short while, but
was very shaky. Grace tried to get Eleanor to walk by pushing her, but Eleanor fell
again facing the opposite direction to her first fall. Grace appeared very stressed,
vocalizing, and continuing to nudge and push Eleanor with her tusks.
Motivations for targeted helping (helping in response to need)
1. offspring / relatives
The ultimate (evolutionary) motivation for helping relatives and offspring is known
as kin selection, which operates at the level of the gene.
In kin selection, helping behaviour is selectively directed towards family members.
This is because family members possess a proportion of our own genes, so in helping
them, we help our own genes (to some extent) to survive and therefore pass themselves
on to future generations.
This principle was proposed by R A Fisher, J S Haldane and W Hamilton.
Through kin selection, mammals and birds generally care for their young, and therefore
it is necessary for them to feel empathic concern towards and help their young in
response to need. Through the motivational autonomy of this ability – its availability
to be used in other social contexts – it is the basis of all empathic concern and
helping behaviour in mammals and birds.
2. mutualism, reciprocity, dependence, friends
In mutual cooperation and reciprocity, the evolutionary reason for helping is that
the helper will somehow be paid back in the future.
The most common form of reciprocity in nature is emotional reciprocity between friends
and strategic partners. Individuals form positive emotional attachments to those
who benefit them, and this provides their psychological motivation to help.
Sometimes we wish to cultivate favourable terms with another person or people, and
we will strategically help them for this purpose. This is a form of tit-for-tat
If we are dependent on another, then evolutionarily, helping them is not a sacrifice
but an investment. Psychologically, we want to help a person who benefits us just
by existing – by doing what they always do for their own best interests.
Mutualism involves helping each other to reach a common goal, and here, the dependencies
are symmetrical: two-way interdependence rather than one-way dependence.
Within a social group of animals, each group member may be valuable to others for
a number of reasons, the primary being “safety in numbers”, providing protection
against predators by swelling the ranks of the group: a predator can only catch one
prey animal at a time. For example, one individual may be a lookout and alarm caller,
a good coalitionary partner, and a good hunter. Thereby, each individual has at
least a small stake in all the other group members’ well being and so it makes sense
to invest in them by helping.
Similar to the stakeholder inequality, there can be a “sum” of stakes, one for each
job that an individual does, that has to be (instinctively) weighed against the the
cost of helping.
Humans feel loyalty towards other group members, because they are so much more cooperative
and interdependent than other creatures, and because they identify with the culture
of their group.
In birds and most mammals, this targeted helping behaviour is sporadic and unpredictable.
In our own species, which by comparison to most others is highly cooperative and
interdependent, this behaviour is relatively consistent and reliable. Because it
is sensitive to factors such as social approval of the one in need, however, it is
easily disrupted by cultural or religious influences which may bestow disapproval
on classes of people.
in early humans sympathetic concern and helping extended beyond kin and friends to
collaborative partners in general, independent of any personal relatedness or personal
history of cooperation. And for individuals who had any sense of the future, the
logic of interdependence demanded that they also help potential partners outside
of the collaborative activity itself because they might be needing them in the future.
Although interdependence is a part of the evolutionary logic of human altruism, it
need play no role in the individual’s personal decision making; the proximate motivation
may simply be to help anyone with certain characteristics or within a certain context.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality”
4. out-group members
People who are not in our group are seen as outsiders, and either: 1) a welcome potential
helpmate; 2) irrelevant; or 3) a threat (i.e. a free-rider on our efforts). The
history of the world has seen progress in widening the "circle of concern": who is
within our moral group. If we help out-group members, it is arguably because we
see them as honorary in-group members. See also: extraordinary altruists
Evidence of consistent targeted helping behaviour in the human archaeological record
Paternalistic helping is where we place someone’s physical well-being above their
own wishes; for example, denying further alcohol to someone who is blind drunk. Another
example is someone who has fallen off their bicycle in the road: they may wish us
to attend to their bicycle before checking on their own well being. However, it
is human nature to place a stranger’s immediate physical needs above other considerations.
This is consistent with an evolutionary motivation to keep people in good shape because
they are needed within an interdependent environment.
Believe that a way out of their suffering can exist.
Find a solution, a way out of their suffering.
Sympathy and compassion
Credit – “Current Biology” volume 24 issue 18: “Empathy and compassion” – Tania Singer
and Olga M Klimecki
“Empathy” here is when we read that someone else is in distress.
“Empathic distress” here is the sympathetic distress we feel when we witness that
someone else is in distress: “I feel bad that you feel bad”.
In response to witnessing somebody suffering, we can feel sympathy (we feel bad because
they feel bad) and compassion (we wish to help them).
If we are unable to help, then the sympathetic distress can overwhelm us and we wish
to withdraw. If we are overwhelmed too much and too often, we can become less empathic
If we are able to offer help then the distress is reduced and we experience positive
feelings associated with prosocial behaviour and approaching others.
We feel more or less sympathetic pain – we feel more or less bad that they feel bad
– depending on how much we approve of them as a person. The amount of sympathy we
feel determines how much we are prepared to help them. There may be various factors
that determine this; for example:
whether someone has been seen to act unfairly or unethically
whether someone is from the same or different ethnic or other group
whether we approve of someone’s behaviour: for example, whether an AIDS patient has
contracted the disease through sharing drug needles or through a contaminated blood
how good a cooperator someone is.
See also: compassion training. Compassion training increases our feelings of helping
and approach rather than of distress and withdrawal.
Empathy, action, and the brain
The neurological capacity for empathy is thought to have evolved in the context of
parental care, especially maternal care. This capacity is then available for use
in other social contexts where it is socially useful.
The animal data on maternal care and nurturance suggest that primitive empathic ability
might be organized by basic biological systems subserving a complex of attachment-related
processes. The neural systems supporting attachment include multisensory processing
and complex motor responses as well as cognitive processes that link sensory inputs
to motor output, including attention, memory, social recognition, and motivation.
Jean Decety – “The neuroevolution of empathy”
In other words, it is thought that the capacity for empathy, based on the fundamental
capacities for attachment and care, is linked to social recognition, paying attention,
and physically doing things. Because of its link with childcare in mammals and birds,
when we recognise need in others, this recognition is linked to helping.
Sympathetic distress within the brain, leads to a wish to help
When we witness another person in distress or need, then a part of our brain becomes
active, the anterior insula.
We experience this unconscious brain activity as our own pain. It equates to “sympathy”.
The strength of the signal in the anterior insula is affected by how much we approve
of the other person, and in turn it determines how much we help them. This approval
rating may be based on a number of factors.