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”



In Charles Darwin’s story of the blind fat pelican, why did the other pelicans bother to feed it?  Surely it was a useless hindrance to them.  

Biology distinguishes between two kinds of causes of behaviour:  ultimate and proximate.  Ultimate causes are the reasons, based on a pressure to increase evolutionary fitness within a particular environment, why a behaviour evolved in the first place.  Proximate causes are the resulting psychological motivations we experience in our present-day everyday lives.  

Ultimate causes:  group members are valuable to each other just by existing.  In the case of a social prey animal like a pelican, this is because there is safety in numbers.  If a predator attacks the flock, it can only take one individual at a time.  If there are more members of the flock, that individual is less likely to be you.  Also, a flock has many eyes with which to watch for predators, thereby allowing each individual more time and resources to devote to feeding, bringing up their young etc.  In the case of group-living predators, it is an advantage to each individual to have helpers in coordinated hunting and in driving away other species from a carcase when scavenging.  

Proximate causes:  using the capacity for social understanding and giving care which we believe evolved for the purposes of looking after offspring, and because one’s group-mates are generally valuable to the individual, the animal or bird is left with a psychological motivation to help those in need without counting the cost.  It is cognitively demanding to calculate the cost/benefit, to the self, of helping, so evolution just says, vaguely, “help your group-mates in need”.  

In animals and birds, 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.  


See also: emotional empathy and targeted helping


Evidence of consistent targeted helping behaviour in the human archaeological record





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 sympathy – 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.  

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.