The Science of Happiness. Register Today
   
 

Aping a Smile

By Alex Dixon | June 1, 2008 | 0 comments

It may be the highest form of flattery, but imitation is among the lowest forms of empathy. Still, that doesn’t make it meaningless.

A recent study has shown that orangutans imitate each other’s facial expressions, providing evidence that empathy may exist in non-humans.

WEDA/epa/Corbis

The study, published in the journal Biology Letters and led by researchers from the University of Portsmouth (in the United Kingdom) and the University of Hanover (in Germany), examined 25 orangutans in captivity. Researchers honed in on one of the orangutans’ facial expressions: oval-shaped open-mouths, which are analogous to human laughter. Just like among humans, the researchers found, the orangutans’ laughter was contagious: When one of them flashed his open-mouthed grin, others around him followed suit roughly two-thirds of the time.

Formally, this is called “emotional contagion”—evidence that emotions can be involuntarily passed from one person to another, like a cold. It’s a basic but still important form of empathy, indicating that an animal is capable of experiencing another’s emotion as his own. In humans, this involuntary facial mimicry can happen in less than fourth-tenths of a second. In this study, the researchers found that orangutans react just as quickly.

The presence of emotional contagion in orangutans suggests empathy is deeply rooted in human nature, stretching back as far as 12 to 16 million years ago, when humans and orangutans shared a common evolutionary ancestor.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
About The Author

Alex Dixon is a Greater Good editorial assistant.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

Self-Compassion & the Cultivation of Happiness with Kristin Neff
International House, UC Berkeley campus
November 7, 2014


Self-Compassion & the Cultivation of Happiness with Kristin Neff

This day-long seminar led by self-compassion pioneer Kristin Neff, will offer strategies for cultivating self-compassion, boosting happiness, and reducing stress in yourself and others.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

Whistling Vivaldi By Claude M. Steele Steele offers studies and stories that show how stereotypes can affect group members' lives in subtle but powerful ways, especially when it comes to academic performance.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.

Sponsors

The Quality of Life Foundation logo Special thanks to

The Quality of Life Foundation for its support of the Greater Good Science Center

 
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement