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What are the origins of empathy? A comparative developmental investigation

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - EMPORIGIN (What are the origins of empathy? A comparative developmental investigation)

Reporting period: 2020-09-01 to 2022-02-28

Empathy –the sharing and understanding of others’ emotions and thoughts – is an essential part of what it means to be human. While empathy underpins our most meaningful social interactions, we lack knowledge about how empathy first develops in early life and how it evolved. Lack of research and limited methodologies to understand the developmental and evolutionary basis of empathy may have led to inaccurate conclusions that human infants lack empathy and that empathy is human-unique. Moreover, although social and cultural factors are expected to influence infant development, most research has been conducted in Western societies. Conducting research on a small and non-representative fraction of the world’s population can lead to a biased picture of empathy development that fails to capture global human diversity. In order to provide a more balanced and accurate view of how empathy develops, it is essential to study across a more diverse cross-cultural sample. Therefore, the main goal of this project is to address these issues by providing the first comparative cross-cultural investigation of the origins of empathy in humans infants and great apes, our closest living relatives. Combining novel techniques (thermal-imaging, pupillometry and eye-tracking) with longitudinal observations and innovative experiments, this project will overcome previous limitations to investigate how the different components of empathy emerge and what factors influences their emergence. Rich datasets from human infants (Uganda and UK), bonobos and chimpanzees will be examined to detect how empathy develops, what factors shape its development and how it may have evolved.

By combining across methods, species, cultures and disciplines, this project advances our understanding of empathy, one of our most remarkable capacities. Through a comparative approach, we can address which aspects of empathy may be learned or socially-mediated, and which might reflect human universals. Comparisons with our ape relatives may challenge current perspectives about its human uniqueness, thus advancing understanding of human evolution and our place in nature. Given the important role that empathy plays in the healthy functioning of individuals and societies, it is essential to know where empathy comes from and how it is shaped by social and cultural experiences. Through understanding its basis and which factors shape its development, our project also has far-reaching beneficial impacts for society.
This is a large and ambitious longitudinal project that examines how empathy develops across human infants across cultures as well as in bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. The research spans four continents, multiple research teams, research sites, species, methods and approaches. Thus far, despite the setbacks from the global COVID pandemic, we have successfully initiated a large cross-cultural and cross-species research project.

For human research, we are in the process of amassing a large longitudinal dataset of over three hundred (N = 300) human infants across two diverse sites in Uganda (Mbarara, SW Uganda and Budongo, W Uganda, N = 250), as well as in the UK (North-East UK, N= 50) to examine how empathy develops. Working with local research teams and partners across two diverse sites in Uganda (one rural and one urban) and one in the UK, we are in the process of collecting rich longitudinal data across four key time points (3 months, 10m, 16m and 24m) with a mixed-methods approach that combines naturalistic observations, behavioural experiments, innovative methodologies and extensive survey data. These datasets enable unique and rich insights into the milestones of infant empathy development, the role of caregiver behaviour and interactions and the socio-cultural environment.

For comparative research, we are conducting an longitudinal study on empathy development in wild bonobos and chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. Teams are in the process of collecting naturalistic behavioural observations from N = 39 wild bonobo mother-infant pairs spanning five communities from two different field sites in DR Congo (N = 23 mother-infant pairs at Wamba, N = 16 at Kokolopori). This multi-site, multi-group comparison enables rich insights into the extent of within-species variability in infant socio-emotional development. To enable a cross-species comparison, we are also completing coding and analysis of comparable data on N = 28 mother-infant pairs from three wild chimpanzee communities in Uganda.

Finally, we are also conducting innovative behavioural experimental research with multiple populations of captive bonobos and chimpanzees in order to understand the evolutionary basis of the cognitive and affective mechanisms of empathy. This involves the use of novel noninvasive technologies including infra-red thermal imagery and pupillometry to detect the affective basis of empathy and eyetracking to detect the cognitive mechanisms.
Although the project is still ongoing and has been (and continues to be) adversely impacted by the COVID pandemic, the project has already advanced the state of the art by opening up new avenues of exploration and knowledge in comparative and cross-cultural research to understand the origins of empathy.
While data collection and analyses are still ongoing, the project has, importantly, succeeded in establishing the use of multiple novel methodologies and approaches in comparative affective science that can have substantial impacts on advancing the field, particularly for detecting the cognitive and affective mechanisms for empathy across species. The project has also shown that through establishing international partnerships and local collaborations, the application of such methods is methodologically feasible in more diverse research settings than had previously been attempted. This includes the successful implementation of infra-red thermal imaging, pupillometry and eyetracking research with great apes across multiple facilities as well as with human infants in diverse cultural settings (multiple sites including rural villages in Uganda), beyond the standard research lab. These achievements advance the field by creating new platforms of opportunity to conduct multi-methods research to understand complex phenomena such as empathy, and to do so in more diverse research settings to gain more balanced understanding of the scope of variability.
The results of the project are expected to advance the state-of-the-art by providing rich insights into how empathy develops in early life, the factors shaping its development and the extent of its human uniqueness. Our comparative research into empathy and its development in wild apes is expected to highlight greater similarities (but some crucial differences) in empathy development across species than was previously appreciated, and the role that caregivers and the social environment play in its development. Our cross-cultural research is expected to expand and challenge current knowledge of the developmental basis of empathy, and the role that the cultural environment plays in shaping its development. Thus far, it has been widely assumed that infants lack empathy in early life, however results from this project are expected to overturn existing assumptions, to a richer socio-emotional awareness already present in infants even in their first year of life.
The research team in Budongo, W. Uganda where we are studying empathy development in human infants