Animal Empathy is a Multilayered Phenomenon that May be the Main Motivator of Pro-Social Behavior

In his “The Antiquity Of Empathy” Perspective article in the May 18 issue of Science, Frans de Waal, PhD, Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, writes animal empathy is best regarded as a multilayered phenomenon and that empathy may be the main motivator of pro-social behavior.


To support this, de Waal transitions between historical information on empathy research, sharing that the evolution of empathy is thought to go back to mammalian maternal care, and the current research focus on the human species’ capacity for cooperation, empathy and pro-social behavior.

He writes, “Developments in psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics and animal behavior have begun to question the view, dominant until a decade ago, that animal life, and by extension human nature, turns around unmitigated competition.”


de Waal believes we are getting close to seeing the full spectrum of empathy-based altruism. Research has shown empathy is biased toward ingroups, which presents challenges in our modern world that seeks to integrate groups, ethnicities and nations. Still, he writes, empathy may be our only hope for advanced cognitive perspective-taking and pro-social behavior, and, therefore, warrants continued investigation of its neurological basis as well as its evolutionary antiquity.