​Empathic Personality and Gender in Our Closest Primate Relatives

  • TWCF Number:


  • Project Duration:

    July 25, 2018 - August 31, 2020

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Priority:

    Diverse Intelligences

  • Region:

    North America

  • Amount Awarded:


Director: Frans B. M. de Waal

Institution: Emory University

Empathy is crucial for thriving in complex social environments. Many animals display empathy towards each other, and it facilitates the melding of minds and emotions. But studying empathy poses many challenges, in part because of how we operationalize and measure the construct. A host of key questions remain unresolved.

World-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal seeks answers by researching our two closest primate relatives: chimpanzees and bonobos.

His team will conduct behavioral observations on at least N = 30 individuals per species, comprising subjects of all age-sex classes. The research will take place at Chimfunshi wildlife orphanage in Zambia and Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, they plan to:

1) test whether sex differences exist in empathic responding,
2) examine age-related changes in empathy, and
3) explore whether animals exhibit stable “empathic personalities.”

Behavioral observations will center on measures of consolation, individuals’ self-regulation of distress, and helping behaviors such as food-sharing. The team predicts that females will display more empathy than males, and that the individuals with whom they empathize will grow more refined over time. These hypotheses question several core assumptions about empathy in our own species.

The team further expects individuals to remain relatively stable in their empathy. This would, in effect, show that empathic personalities are not unique to humans. Finally, they predict species differences, such that bonobos will exhibit more empathy than chimpanzees—adding to recent experimental and neuroscientific data through observations of natural behaviors.

Though chimpanzees and bonobos are related to humans in equal measure, they themselves show striking differences in sociality, yielding complementary insights to human nature. Testing the project’s premises in both species thus opens doors to large-scale societal discussions and debates about empathy.


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