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Yerkes Study Shows Chimpanzees Respond Empathetically to Animations

September 9, 2009

Understanding How Nonhuman Animals Respond to Animations May Help Researchers Better Understand Human Empathy

Media Contacts

Emily Rios, 404-727-7732, erios@emory.edu; Lisa Newbern, 404-727-7709, lisa.newbern@emory.edu

ATLANTA, GA – In the only study of its kind, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have documented the first example of a nonhuman primate empathizing with a computer animation. The study, which is available in the current edition of The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, demonstrated chimpanzees respond empathetically to animated chimpanzees, showing a level of identification with the animations. Understanding why and how chimpanzees connect with animations may help researchers understand why and how humans empathize with others.

“We know humans often empathize with fictional displays of behavior, including those in cartoons and video games, even though the displays are obviously artificial,” said lead researcher Matthew Campbell, PhD. “Humans experience emotional engagement with characters, empathizing with happiness, sadness or other emotions displayed by the characters. Previous studies have suggested this type of emotional engagement may be to blame when children mimic violent video games and cartoons, so we thought it important to learn more,” Campbell continued.

To understand why humans relate to artificial characters in this way, Campbell set out to determine if chimpanzees would respond empathetically to virtual characters. The researchers used contagious yawning to test empathetic response. “Yawns are contagious in the same way other emotional responses, like smiles, frowns and fear, are contagious,” said Campbell.

He and his team showed chimpanzees 3D animations of chimpanzees yawning and showing control mouth movements. The chimpanzees yawned significantly more in response to the yawning animations than they did to the animations showing control mouth movements.

“Yawning in response to the animated yawns showed an empathetic reaction to the animations,” said Campbell. “Because they showed only involuntary responses to the animations, we believe they empathized with the animations, while knowing they were artificial. This is important for us to know because we can present animations in future experiments knowing the chimpanzees will identify with the animations as if they are other chimpanzees. This opens up the possibility of using animations in many other types of studies,” Campbell added.

Researchers next plan to show chimpanzees improved and degraded animations of chimpanzee yawns to see how they respond to more and less lifelike animations. This may help researchers understand whether different aspects of animations make them more or less likely to be imitated.

“Such knowledge could tell us how to design animations for children to promote imitation when used therapeutically, as with children with autism spectrum disorder, or to limit imitation when used for entertainment, as with video games,” said Campbell.

For nearly eight decades, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, has been dedicated to conducting essential basic science and translational research to advance scientific understanding and to improve the health and well-being of humans and nonhuman primates. Today, the center, as one of only eight National-Institutes of Health-funded national primate research centers, provides leadership, training and resources to foster scientific creativity, collaboration and discoveries. Yerkes-based research is grounded in scientific integrity, expert knowledge, respect for colleagues, an open exchange of ideas and compassionate quality animal care.

Within the fields of microbiology, immunology, neuroscience and psychobiology, the center’s research programs are seeking ways to: develop vaccines for infectious and noninfectious diseases, such as AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease; treat cocaine addiction; interpret brain activity through imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; unlock the secrets of memory; determine behavioral effects of hormone replacement therapy; address vision disorders; and advance knowledge about the evolutionary links between biology and behavior.

The goal of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center is to view great apes as a window to the human past by studying their behavior, cognition, neuroanatomy, genes and reproduction in a noninvasive manor. Another goal is to educate the public about apes and to help guarantee their continued existence in the wild.



The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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