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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