What do you tell a sad monkey?
Stop chimping about it.
Chimpanzees, just like humans, have their own personalities and individual differences. However, a new study raises a question on whether one's emphatic tendencies are part of such consistent personality.
Christine Webb at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and her team observed a group of 44 chimpanzees at Yerkes National Primate Research Center for eight long years. With that, they were able to notice how consistent individual differences are over their lifespan. For example, those youths who are more likely to console their companions in times of distress also tend to console more later in life.
They also found that adults are less likely to console others compared to juveniles and infants. This, however, doesn't necessarily mean that older chimps are less emphatic than younger ones, says co-author Frans de Waal, also of Emory University.
“I think they become more selective in how they express it,” he says. “They focus on individuals they’re close to – offspring or friends – whereas the young ones respond to everything emotional.” Personality traits such as agreeableness and extraversion could also be in play: as they grow up, agreeableness tend to increase but extraversion substantially decreases which may affect their consolation behavior. This mechanism is even similar in bonobos and gorillas.
Another 2013 study of humans have another explanation. Researchers measure participants' brain activity as they watch videos of people getting hurt. With this, they found that older people tend to have lesser emotional responses but still seem to ponder on the intention of somebody inflicting the pain. This suggests that while older people can still understand and process others' feelings, they are less likely to feel emotionally distressed about it.
“It may be that older individuals console less, but when they do, they do better,” she says.
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