Animals Have More Empathy Than Previously Thought

First Posted: Jan 22, 2016 04:22 PM EST

Humans are not the only species that console their dear ones. In this recent study, researchers found that prairie voles console their loved ones who are under stress. It turns out that oxytocin, the famous "love hormone," is the factor behind this mechanism.

Consolation behaviors have been noted among nonhuman species that possess high levels of sociality and cognitional skills, like elephants, dolphins and dogs. Prairie voles are known social rodents, thus they have been the center of many research studies.

During their experiment, the researchers gathered the relatives and acquaintances of prairie voles. Some of the individuals were temporarily separated from the others and were given mild shocks. The researchers noticed that when the prairie voles were united again, the non-stressed prairie voles lick the stressed voles sooner with longer durations compared to a control group where individuals were separated, but were not exposed to a stressor.

The hormone levels indicated that the family members and friends were distressed when they could not comfort their loved one. Oxytocin is affiliated with empathy in humans, thus the researchers blocked this neurotransmitter in prairie voles when they conducted several other consolation experiments. This approach did not alter the family and friends' behaviors, but they did cease to console each other.

The researchers' study is shedding new light on the drivers of empathy and complex empathy-motivated behaviors.

The findings of this study were published in Science.

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