Seeing someone else suffer a big disappointment can have a pretty damaging effect on your own morale. That’s definitely the case with people—and it might be true for ravens, too.
New research suggests that, like humans and many other mammals, common ravens (Corvus corax) can read and internalize the emotional states of others. In the study, published today in the journal PNAS, ravens watch their friends grapple with a frustrating task in which they’re denied a tasty treat. Though the onlookers aren’t deprived of anything, they then seem to mirror their partners’ discontent, and start behaving pessimistically themselves.
Showing that non-human animals have empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of others—is no easy task. A big part of the challenge is obvious: Researchers can’t ask their subjects how they’re feeling, says Stephanie Preston, a neuroscientist studying emotion and behavior at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study.
But some researchers argue that empathy can be broken down and tested through its more manageable components. For instance, you can’t have empathy without emotional contagion, or the tendency of the feelings and behaviors of an emotional reaction to hop from individual to individual even in the absence of what triggered them. Emotional contagion is, in a sense, a way to experience by proxy—and it can come with serious perks.
“This gives you the ability to learn information about something without having to experience it yourself,” Preston says. “There’s an advantage to not having to experience pain, or realize food makes you sick, or see that someone is threatening...it can also give you the information you need to provide help to another in distress. It’s an efficient way to learn in a social environment.”
Read the full article at PBS.