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Need a hug? Study details human-like way bonobos show empathy (+video)

In human children, research has indicated that orphans have a hard time bouncing back quickly from an emotional setback. This study points to the same patterns in young bonobos.

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Bonobos, which along with chimpanzees are humans' closest living relatives, can be quick with a sympathetic hug and quick to recover from their own stressful events. And they have their mothers to thank for it.

That's the upshot of a new study of behavior among bonobos – primates that researchers have found to host remarkably humanlike abilities to empathize or to forgo aggression for cooperation in a society that gives females higher status than males.

In the past, studies of empathy and an ability to console others among bonobos have focused on who is giving and receiving comfort and under what circumstances, explains Frans de Waal, who heads the Living Links program at Emory University's Yerkes Primate National Research Center in Atlanta. The studies also have looked for parallels between bonobos and young children on these points.

But researchers had yet to explore the emotional traits among individual bonobos that are needed to develop empathy, explains Dr. de Waal, who was one of two Emory researchers conducting the study.

In human children, studies have indicated that orphans have a hard time keeping their emotions in check or bouncing back quickly from an emotional setback, compared with children raised by at least a mother, if not both parents. This study points to the same patterns in young bonobos.

Individuals who have a hard time regulating their emotions, "like orphans, for example,... are not capable of overcoming their own emotions in order to pay attention to the emotions of others," de Waal says.

The research was conducted by de Waal and Zanna Clay, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory and the lead author of the paper formally reporting the results in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The duo initially aimed to study a wider array of behaviors among bonobos, including conflict resolution. Their subjects: bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The sanctuary accepts animals that had been rescued from being turned into a bushmeat meal or sold as pets. Many of the bonobos in the study came to the sanctuary as orphans, although humans had served as temporary foster mothers for some. Others at the sanctuary were born there.


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