Comparative perspectives of empathy development: insights from chimpanzees and bonobos

Zanna Clay, Christine E. Webb, Teresa Romero, Frans B. M. de Waal

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Empathy - the sharing and understanding of others' emotions and thoughts-is considered a defining feature of what it means to be human. Although empathy underpins many of our social interactions and is thought to be evolutionarily ancient, its origins remain relatively obscure. Here, this chapter presents research investigating socioemotional development in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (P. paniscus), to identify the origins of empathy, across ontogenetic and evolutionary timescales. Research on consolation, a form of comforting behavior, indicate that sensitivity to others' emotional states is present early in great ape life, and that individuals consistently differ from one another in this trait. Mirroring effects shown for human infants, orphan juvenile apes show more disordered socioemotional functioning and reduced empathy as compared to mother-reared peers. These findings suggest a deep evolutionary and ontogenetic basis of empathy and some striking similarities in socioemotional development between humans and great apes.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Emotional Development
EditorsDaniel Dukes, Andrea C. Samson, Erica A. Walle
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780191889516
ISBN (Print)9780198855903
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jan 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • consolation
  • developmental disturbance
  • emotion contagion
  • great apes
  • mammals
  • perspective taking
  • sympathetic concern

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