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Does Sympathy Motivate Prosocial Behaviour in Great Apes?

Liebal, K., Vaish, A., Haun, D., Tomasello, M. – 2014

Prosocial behaviours such as helping, comforting, or sharing are central to human social life. Because they emerge early in ontogeny, it has been proposed that humans are prosocial by nature and that from early on empathy and sympathy motivate such behaviours. The emerging question is whether humans share these abilities to feel with and for someone with our closest relatives, the great apes. Although several studies demonstrated that great apes help others, little is known about their underlying motivations. This study addresses this issue and investigates whether four species of great apes (Pongo pygmaeus, Gorilla gorilla, Pan troglodytes, Pan paniscus) help a conspecific more after observing the conspecific being harmed (a human experimenter steals the conspecific’s food) compared to a condition where no harming occurred. Results showed that in regard to the occurrence of prosocial behaviours, only orangutans, but not the African great apes, help others when help is needed, contrasting prior findings on chimpanzees. However, with the exception of one population of orangutans that helped significantly more after a conspecific was harmed than when no harm occurred, prosocial behaviour in great apes was not motivated by concern for others.

Does Sympathy Motivate Prosocial Behaviour in Great Apes?
Liebal, K., Vaish, A., Haun, D., Tomasello, M.
PLoS ONE 9 (1): e84299. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0084299