Targeted helping

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 young.  



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 him kindly.  

“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.  

Frans de Waal – “The Age of Empathy”


See also: emotional empathy and targeted helping



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.   

See also: Hamilton's Rule

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 reciprocity.

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.  

See also: emotional reciprocity; stakeholder principle; unconditional love; tit-for-tat reciprocity 1, 2; inclusive fitness


3.  social group members  

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

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.    




Helping behaviour in very young children





The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

These can be expressed as:  

  1. Understand that someone is suffering.  
  2. Understand the cause for their suffering.
  3. Believe that a way out of their suffering can exist.
  4. 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 in general.  

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:  

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.