Scientists reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have discovered similarities between the emotional development of bonobos (Pan paniscus) and that of children, suggesting these apes regulate their emotions in a human-like way.
The scientists conducted their study at the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary near Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Detailed video analysis of daily social life at the sanctuary allowed them to measure how bonobos handle their own emotions as well as how they react to the emotions of others. They found the two were related in that bonobos that recovered quickly and easily from their own emotional upheavals, such as after losing a fight, showed more empathy for their fellow great apes. Clay notes those bonobos more often gave body comfort (kissing, embracing, touching) to those in distress.
Bonobos are as genetically similar to humans as are chimpanzees. They are widely considered the most empathic great ape. If the way bonobos handle their own emotions predicts how they react to those of others, this hints at emotion regulation, such as the ability to temper strong emotions and avoid over-arousal.
In children, emotion regulation is crucial for healthy social development. Socially competent children keep the ups and downs of their emotions within bounds. A stable parent-child bond is essential for this, which is why human orphans typically have trouble managing their emotions.
The bonobo sanctuary near Kinshasa includes many victims of bushmeat hunting. Human substitute mothers care for the juvenile bonobos that were forcefully removed at an early age from their bonobo mothers. This care continues for years until the bonobos are transferred to a forested enclosure with bonobos of all ages.
“Compared to peers reared by their own mothers, the orphans have difficulty managing emotional arousal,” said Dr Zanna Clay from Emory University, who is a first author of the study.
“They would be very upset, screaming for minutes after a fight compared to mother-reared juveniles, who would snap out of it in seconds.”
“By measuring the expression of distress and arousal in great apes, and how they cope, we were able to confirm that efficient emotion regulation is an essential part of empathy. Empathy allows great apes and humans to absorb the distress of others without getting overly distressed themselves,” said second author Dr Frans de Waal, also from Emory University.
“This also explains why orphan bonobos, which have experienced trauma that hampers emotional development, are less socially competent than their mother-raised peers.”
Bibliographic information: Zanna Clay and Frans B. M. de Waal. Development of socio-emotional competence in bonobos. PNAS, published online October 14, 2013; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1316449110