What makes us ‘human’


The 13th century Persian poet Saadi is quoted as saying that a person who is indifferent to the pain or suffering of others is a traitor to that which is truly human.

Although empathy is more in line with what Saadi was referring to, numerous studies have shown that pain, suffering, fear, and other emotional responses can be socially acquired through observing the suffering of others. Hatfield et al.’s (1994) fascinating book, Emotional Contagion, for example, offers a glimpse into the mechanisms behind the spread of emotions and emotional synchrony.

mouseBut this suffering and response business isn’t just for humans—animals do it too! Experimental studies such as Jeon et al. (2010) found that mice developed freezing behavior after observing another mouse receive repeated foot shocks (ouch!). Moreover, the observer mice’s fear responses were intensified when the shocked mice were socially related (e.g., mates, siblings)! This may give you something to ponder when purchasing your next mousetrap.

More accessible accounts of emotion in the animal world include The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow and Empathy–And Why They Matter by Mark Bekoff, How Animals Grieve by Barbara King, and When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson and Susan McCarthy.

Are you feeling sad for the mice in Jeon et al.’s (2010) study? Perhaps sympathy…er…empathy? Is there a difference? Here’s a quote from my in-press publication:

The terms empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but an examination of interactants’ affiliative work warrants greater precision. Empathy “involves sharing the perceived emotion of another – ‘feeling with’ another” (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990: 5) and is “the imaginative sharing of someone else’s experience” (Hepburn and Potter 2007: 99). Heritage defines empathy as “an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition” (2011: 161). Sympathy may be thought of as “‘feeling for’ someone, and refers to feelings of sorrow, or feeling sorry, for another” (Eisenberg and Strayer 1990: 6), but it does not require sharing or identifying with the other person’s feelings.

(Prior, in-press)

You can also watch this entertaining 3-minute video which explains the difference between empathy and sympathy quite nicely.

Can we say, then, that this shared lack of indifference to suffering—whether it’s a physiological or psychological response, a show of compassion, or something else—makes both people and animals truly “human”? Hmm…


  • Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.T., & Rapson, R.L. (1994). Emotional contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jeon, D. et al. (2010). Observational fear learning involves affective pain system and Cav 1.2 Ca2+ channels in ACC. Nature Neuroscience 13(4), 482-490.

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