Conformity-like behaviour in mice observing the freezing of other mice: a model of empathy

BMC Neurosci. 2020 May 1;21(1):19. doi: 10.1186/s12868-020-00566-4.


Background: Empathy refers to the ability to recognise and share emotions with others. Several research groups have recognised observational fear in mice as a useful behavioural model for assessing their ability to empathise. However, in these observation systems, it remains unclear whether the observer mouse truly recognises the movements of, and empathises with, the demonstrator mouse. We examined changes in the behaviour of an observer mouse when a demonstrator mouse was anaesthetised, when the demonstrator's activity was increased, and when the interval of electrical stimulation was altered. If mice exhibit an ability to empathise, then the observer should display empathic behaviour when the demonstrator experiences pain or discomfort under any circumstances.

Results: Relative to low-frequency stimulation, frequent electrical stimulation reduced immobility time among observer mice. Moreover, when demonstrators exhibited excessive activity, the activity of the observers significantly increased. In addition, the proportion of immobility time among observer mice significantly increased when demonstrator mice exhibited fear learning and excessive immobility.

Conclusion: Although our results indicate that observer mice change their behaviour based on the movements of demonstrator mice, increases in immobility time may reflect conformity-like behaviour rather than emotional empathy. Thus, not only visual but also auditory and odour information additionally influenced the conformity-like behaviour shown by observer mice. Thus, our findings suggest that methods other than the fear observation system should be used to investigate rodent empathy-like behaviour.

Keywords: Behaviour; Conformity; Emotional contagion; Empathy; Imitation; Locomotion; Mimicry; Mouse; Observational fear; Rodent; Social interest.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology
  • Male
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Social Behavior*