Computer animations stimulate contagious yawning in chimpanzees

Matthew W. Campbell, J. Devyn Carter, Darby Proctor, Michelle L. Eisenberg, Frans B. M. de Waal

Abstract

People empathize with fictional displays of behaviour, including those of cartoons and computer animations, even though the stimuli are obviously artificial. However, the extent to which other animals also may respond empathetically to animations has yet to be determined. Animations provide a potentially useful tool for exploring non-human behaviour, cognition and empathy because computer-generated stimuli offer complete control over variables and the ability to program stimuli that could not be captured on video. Establishing computer animations as a viable tool requires that non-human subjects identify with and respond to animations in a way similar to the way they do to images of actual conspecifics. Contagious yawning has been linked to empathy and poses a good test of involuntary identification and motor mimicry. We presented 24 chimpanzees with three-dimensional computer-animated chimpanzees yawning or displaying control mouth movements. The apes yawned significantly more in response to the yawn animations than to the controls, implying identification with the animations. These results support the phenomenon of contagious yawning in chimpanzees and suggest an empathic response to animations. Understanding how chimpanzees connect with animations, to both empathize and imitate, may help us to understand how humans do the same.

Footnotes

    • Received June 24, 2009.
    • Accepted August 21, 2009.
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