Ravens and Empathy: The Role of Bystanders After Conflict

By Darcy Cowan 23/06/2010

ResearchBlogging.orgAt the same time as we were learning that Vegetarians and Vegans might be more empathic than Omnivores we were also discovering the nature of empathy in Ravens. Published in PLoS One recently was a paper called “Do Ravens Show Consolation? Responses to Distressed Others” looking at the behaviour of Ravens and the implications for the emotional lives of these birds.

I’m always interested in these sorts of studies as they show that each facet of human capability is not unique and the variation seen between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom is usually only a matter of degree. For some reason I find this immensely satisfying, an emotional connection with the rest of the life on this planet that I rarely encounter in the suburban environment that I inhabit.

So how do you determine empathy among Ravens?

Well, it’s tricky. Essentially you have to determine a particular behaviour that occurs under particular circumstances indicating that an element of recognition of stress in one bird triggers behaviour to reduce that stress in another bird. Follow that? I’m not sure I did. What I’m saying is that definitions matter, if you want to infer a mental state from behaviour you have to be very clear on what that behaviour is to protect against confounding factors.

In this case the behaviour investigated consisted of monitoring the interactions of the birds for ten minutes after conflicts (either chase-flight, hitting [high intensity]  or forced retreats [low intensity]) and determining whether the interactions occurred more quickly than in the corresponding ten minute time frame on a following day. In this way normal interactions could be controlled for and allow interpretation of the post-conflict interactions.

One other ingredient was also required. In order to assign significance to an interaction the so-called “value” of the relationship between interacting birds has to be known. Explicitly assigning value to a relationship is a bit of unusual concept in day-to-day life but, for example, friends and family would be classed as more valuable relationships than colleagues and acquaintances. So basically the researchers were attempting to determine who the birds friends were.

What was found was that birds who were the recipients of high intensity conflict (eg hitting) were more likely to receive interactions with high value bystanders. In other words, when birds got into a serious fight their friends came over afterwards. The correlation with conflict intensity implies that the “friends” knew when the victim would be more distressed and would need to be calmed. This insight further implies some level of empathy.

Further research might investigate what (if anything) the “friends” get out of comforting the victim. Perhaps the “friend” also becomes distressed and such interactions work to lower the stress of both the victim and the “friend”.

If such experiments seem dry compared to our experiences of empathic emotion remember that teasing out the mental states of humans is just as difficult by looking at behaviour. Consoling behaviour in humans may not indicate genuine empathy but a savvy use of circumstance to increase political control. Examinations of behaviour alone might not reveal the difference. Still, it’s nice to know that birds have friends too.

Fraser, O., & Bugnyar, T. (2010). Do Ravens Show Consolation? Responses to Distressed Others PLoS ONE, 5 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010605

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Filed under: Psychological, Sciblogs, Science Tagged: Animal, Biology, Bird, emotion, Empathy, Environment and Ecology, Family (biology), Human, nature, PLoS, ravens, Research, Science

0 Responses to “Ravens and Empathy: The Role of Bystanders After Conflict”

  • an interesting article- although I can’t help thinking that pet owners already know about empathy between animals. It’s argued that observations made on domestic animals do not have weight, but anyone who has watched wild rats, feral chickens, feral goats, or kea will have seen many of the same behaviours. I agree- it’s good seeing that humans are not so special after all!

    I am including a Youtube link- I hope I have done it right -showing social interactions between chickens and fighting rabbits.

    What do you think is going on here then? I love the idea of chicken police!


  • Thanks for the comment, Nice video!

    I have no idea what the basis for that behaviour might be but yeah, Chicken Police would be awesome.

    I have chickens myself but don’t spend much time observing their behaviour so I don’t know their normal reactions to conflict.

    Regarding pets, I agree that most owners would be familiar with behaviour they would interpret as empathic (I have 6 dogs myself). These observations are a good place to start but I would be wary of projecting the emotions we think we see on to the animals rather than truly determining what is occurring. This is something that science has struggled with it the past (going overboard in the other direction declaring that the emotions were all in the mind of the beholder).

    We seem to be moving back towards ascribing emotions to animals but the methods used should still be cautious to avoid unwarranted over interpretation. To be clear, I’m firmly in the camp that non-human animals have an internal life that includes emotion reactions to stimuli, I just think if we simply ascribe the human equivalent emotion we might miss subtleties that rob these creatures of their distinctiveness.

  • I think the emotions we recognise in say, dogs, are those that could be common in pack animals. Anyone who has had a dog knows that dogs express strong (analogues?) to joy, disappointment, guilt and jealousy. These are all emotions that might be useful in social species.

    As far as the chicken police go (I love that clip!) -chickens have a strong ‘pecking order’- a heirachy, and as such, maybe they have some analogue to a sense of justice, or at least an awareness of the importance of addressing conflict within a group? All wild speculation based purely on observation, but nice to wonder about!!