Empathy and compassion toward other species decrease with evolutionary divergence time

Sci Rep. 2019 Dec 20;9(1):19555. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-56006-9.


Currently the planet is inhabited by several millions of extremely diversified species. Not all of them arouse emotions of the same nature or intensity in humans. Little is known about the extent of our affective responses toward them and the factors that may explain these differences. Our online survey involved 3500 raters who had to make choices depending on specific questions designed to either assess their empathic perceptions or their compassionate reactions toward an extended photographic sampling of organisms. Results show a strong negative correlation between empathy scores and the divergence time separating them from us. However, beyond a certain time of divergence, our empathic perceptions stabilize at a minimum level. Compassion scores, although based on less spontaneous choices, remain strongly correlated to empathy scores and time of divergence. The mosaic of features characterizing humans has been acquired gradually over the course of the evolution, and the phylogenetically closer a species is to us, the more it shares common traits with us. Our results could be explained by the fact that many of these traits may arouse sensory biases. These anthropomorphic signals could be able to mobilize cognitive circuitry and to trigger prosocial behaviors usually at work in human relationships.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Phylogeny