Researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have discovered that a social laboratory rodent, the prairie vole, shows an empathy-based consoling response when other voles are distressed. This is the first time researchers have shown consolation behavior in rodents, and this discovery ends the long-standing belief that detecting the distress of others and acting to relieve that stress is uniquely human. Making this finding even more significant is that it has important implications for understanding and treating psychiatric disorders in which detecting and responding to the emotions of others can be disrupted, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and schizophrenia.
Study co-author Frans de Waal, PhD, was the first to discover animal consolation behavior in 1979 by observing how chimpanzees provide contact comfort to victims of aggression. According to de Waal, the present vole study has significant implications by confirming the empathic nature of the consolation response. “Scientists have been reluctant to attribute empathy to animals, often assuming selfish motives. These explanations have never worked well for consolation behavior, however, which is why this study is so important,” says de Waal.