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Apes and Humans Share Same Empathy, Yawn Study Suggests

Update Date: Aug 12, 2014 01:05 PM EDT

Empathy is universal across different species, new research suggests. After comparing the "yawn contagion" effect between humans and bonobos, researchers found that having a relationship carries significantly greater weight in stirring empathy than belonging to the same species.

"Emotional contagion" is the most basic form of empathy, the ability to experience feelings of another individual. "Emotional contagion" happens when feelings disclosed by facial expressions (for example sorrow, pain, happiness or tiredness) are passed from an "emitting face" to a "receiving face". Mirroring the sender's facial expression will trigger similar emotion in the recipient.

Experts explain that yawn contagion is one the most common and basic forms of emotional contagion. Previous studies show evidence of yawn contagion in and humans and bonobos.

Researchers in the latest five-year study observed humans and bonobos during their everyday activities.  Researchers focused on two facets of yawn contagion. They looked at how many times the individuals responded to others' yawns and how quickly individuals responded.

The findings show that bonobos responded just as frequently and promptly as humans when yawners were not friends or kin. Researchers said that the findings go against the common belief that emotional contagion is more pronounced in humans compared to other species.

Researchers noted that humans, however, responded at a higher and faster rate when friends and family were involved. Researchers said this could be because close bonds between humans develop from complex and sophisticated emotional foundations linked to cognition, memory and experience.

The findings are published in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ.

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