Empathy And Altruism – What We Can Learn From Our Animal Friends

-By A. Scott Roberts
M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling, Addiction Specialist

The 12th step in AA asks recovering addicts to share their experience and help others in the addiction trap. An important aspect of recovery is positive socialization, which can also be considered as evolutionarily adaptive.

Research has shown that altruistic acts can be necessary for survival.

Animals often work together to escape threats, which helps them to survive. You may have seen how birds reactivly fly in flocks because one of them triggered this response in the whole group.

Human infants display similar reactions. When a newborn starts to cry, other babies join in and there is a spread of automatic distress among all of them.1 Oftentimes, infants and animals automatically adopt the emotional state of others.2 This is called emotional contagion.

Human infant brains are very similar to the brains found in animals.  Human infants have, what scientists call, “reptilian” brains because the neocortex (large part of the brain) isn’t fully formed yet.

Emotional contagion has been extensively studied in animals and it goes beyond just feeling for someone, but actually feeling into. In one study, mice saw other mice in pain and they vicariously had an intensified pain response as well.3 When humans undergo emotional contagion, they actually start to feel and reflect those same emotions of their peers.4

Mirror neurons are responsible for this emotional contagion. Mirror neurons have shown to be activated when an animal witnesses another in pain. Humans have these neurons too. When watching another person in pain, those neurons are activated in our brain and we start to mimic their behavior and then start to feel empathy (feeling into) their distress.5

Emotional contagion is evolutionarily adaptive because it helps others to survive. When an animal is startled or frightened, they alarm others to hide or flee.

Jane Goodall observed the behavior of chimpanzees that were on man-made islands surrounded by water-filled moats, she observed:

“One adult male lost his life as he tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother allowed him to fall into the water.”6

One thing that separates humans from the animals is a large part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex which is what researchers know is very important in making decisions, weighing options, planning and abstract thought. Animals do not have this large part of the brain and they do not perform risk/benefit analysis like humans do.

The attempt to save another chimpanzee in the example above, was not because it was a moral choice, but because it was evolutionarily obligatory.

In one study, animals that were separated by bars shared food with each other (bars eliminated the possibility that sharing came from the pressure of the group). Dolphins are documented as saving others by ripping them out of nets, and supported other sick dolphins by staying with them near the top of the water to keep them from drowning. Whales will even put themselves between a hunter’s boat and an injured companion in effort to protect them.7

Elephants lift and support other elephants that are too weak to stand.8 Researchers have shown that apes defeated in fights will be hugged and embraced by a friend or others in the group.9

Animals “do the right thing” because it is rooted deep within them as a survival process. Evolution has shaped animals to employ sight, sound and smell to detect distress in others through expression, vocalizations or the smell of pheromones.

Would humans risk their lives to save a stranger’s drowning child or risk being harpooned to save a stranger?  Do we go out of our way to share food with others when we are not pressured to do so?

Some research actually indicates that humans often engage in altruistic behaviors because they expect a favor in return. But when we do give without seeking a favor, it has shown to activate the limbic “reward” center.10

As published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, giving actually has an anatomical foundation that is shared by the selfish rewards activated by drugs or alcohol. Charitable donations and acts of altruism, as we find out, isn’t just a moral faculty, but is hard-wired in the primitive area in the brain.

One experiment showed that when we are just watching someone engaged in acts of altruism, it activates this reward center.11 What we consider acts of love such as praise and affection activate the ancient limbic “reward” center and reduces stress in a similar manner that addictive substances do.12

Researchers found that most people think that money makes them happy, when data shows it is really meaningful relationships and socialization.13 According to research, the top ranking animals in the pecking order are the most generous (Deal 1989). Doesn’t it seem that humans tend to become more isolated by their success?

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”
― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Perhaps we spend too much time philosophizing and contemplating and trying to understand what is right and wrong. When really it is hard-wired as a survival process to help others – and it makes us more happy.

Animals with less than half the brain of ours, automatically do the right thing without thinking. Our large prefrontal cortex is a blessing, but it can also be a curse. We think too much and often contemplate too much instead of acting in service and caring unconditionally.

-A. Scott Roberts
 M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling
Addiction Specialist


1. Hoffman, Martin L. Developmental synthesis of affect and cognition and its implications for altruistic motivation. Developmental Psychology, Vol 11(5), Sep 1975, 607-622
2. Hatfield, E. 1993. “Passionate and Companionate Love.” In The Psychology of Love, 191–217
3. Langord, et. al, 2006 “Social Modulation of Pain as Evidence for Empathy in Mice”
4. Hatfield, E.; Cacioppo, J.T.; Rapson, R.L. (1993). “Emotional contagion. Current Directions”. Psychological Science 2: 96–99
5. Blakeslee, Sandra, Cells That Read Minds, New York Times, Science,January 10, 2006
6. Jane Goodall, 1990 Through a window. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Publishing.
7. Caldwell, M.C., & Caldwell, D. K. 1996. Epidemic (care-giving) behaior in cetacea. “Whales, dolphins and porpoises”
8. Hamilton, W. D. 1964. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour.” Journal of Theoretical Biology
9. DeWall, et. al. (2008). Depletion makes the heart grow less helpful: Helping as a function of self-regulatory strength and genetic relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1653-1662.
10. Moll, J., et al. 2006. “Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions About Charitable Donation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
11. Tankersley, D., et al. “Altruism Is Associated With an Increased Response to Agency.” 2007. Nature Neuroscience
12. Moll, J., et al. 2006. “Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions About Charitable Donation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (October 17) 103(42):15623–15628.
13. “What Is More Important for National Well-Being: Money or Autonomy? A Meta-Analysis of Well-Being, Burnout and Anxiety Across 63 Societies,” Ronald Fischer, PhD, and Diana Boer, PhD, Victoria University of Wellington; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, Issue 1.

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