U.S. researchers studying young bonobos in an African sanctuary have found striking similarities between the emotional development of the bonobos and that of children, suggesting these great apes regulate their emotions in a human-like way.
The findings, published Monday in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the socio-emotional framework commonly applied to children works equally well for apes and can be used to test predictions of great ape behavior.
Researchers from Emory University employed video analysis to show bonobos at a sanctuary near Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, handle their own emotions as well as how they react to the emotions of others.
They found bonobos that recovered quickly and easily from their own emotional upheavals, such as after losing a fight, and showed more empathy for their fellow great apes.
Those bonobos more often gave body comfort such as kissing, embracing, touching to those in distress, the researchers said.
Bonobo, one of our closest primate relatives, is as genetically similar to humans as is the chimpanzee and widely considered the most empathic great ape.
“This makes the species an ideal candidate for psychological comparisons,” said co-author Frans de Waal from Emory University. “Any fundamental similarity between humans and bonobos probably traces back to their last common ancestor, which lived around six million years ago.”
If the way bonobos handle their own emotions predicts how they react to those of others, this hints at emotion regulation, such as the ability to temper strong emotions and avoid over-arousal, the researchers said.
“Animal emotions have long been scientifically taboo,” said de Waal, but he stressed how such studies that zoom in on emotions can provide valuable information about humans and our society.
“By measuring the expression of distress and arousal in great apes, and how they cope, we were able to confirm that efficient emotion regulation is an essential part of empathy. Empathy allows great apes and humans to absorb the distress of others without getting overly distressed themselves,” said de Waal.
He said this also explains why orphan bonobos, which have experienced trauma that hampers emotional development, are less socially competent than their mother-raised peers.