Do Animals Feel Empathy?; December 2007/January 2008; Scientific American Mind; by Frans B. M. de Waal; 8 Page(s)
Apart from some rear-guard behaviorists, few people hesitate to ascribe empathy to their dogs. But then dogs are man's best friend, freely credited with lots of human sentiments. For as much as we empathize with our canines, we have been stingy about recognizing empathy elsewhere in the animal kingdom, reserving it as a human trait. This belief is changing, however, as a growing line of research demonstrates not just empathy's existence in other animals but its subtleties and exceptions as well. And they shed some interesting light on how we developed our capacity for caring for others.
The recent surge in empathy studies revives a line of research started almost half a century ago. In 1959 a paper by psychologist Russell Church in the Journal of Comparative & Physiological Psychology, provocatively entitled "Emotional Reactions of Rats to the Pain of Others." Church first trained rats to obtain food by pressing a lever. He found that if a rat pressing the lever saw another rat in a neighboring cage receive a shock from an electrified cage floor, the first rat would interrupt its activity--a remarkable result. Why shouldn't the rat continue to get food and simply ignore the other animal's flinching? The bigger question was whether the rats that stopped pressing the lever were worried about their companions or just afraid that something bad might happen to them as well.