Monday, September 14, 2009
September 14, 2009
Virtual empathy clue to behavior
By Emily Rios
In the only study of its kind, researchers at the Yerkes National Primate
Research Center have documented the first example of a nonhuman primate
empathizing with a computer animation. The study, which is available in the
current edition of The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, demonstrated
chimpanzees respond empathetically to animated chimpanzees, showing a level of
identification with the animations. Understanding why and how chimpanzees
connect with animations may help researchers understand why and how humans
empathize with others.
“We know humans often empathize with fictional displays of behavior, including those in cartoons and video games, even though the displays are obviously artificial,” says lead researcher Matthew Campbell. “Humans experience emotional engagement with characters, empathizing with happiness, sadness or other emotions displayed by the characters. Previous studies have suggested this type of emotional engagement may be to blame when children mimic violent video games and cartoons, so we thought it important to learn more.”
To understand why humans relate to artificial characters in this way, Campbell set out to determine if chimpanzees would respond empathetically to virtual characters. The researchers used contagious yawning to test empathetic response. “Yawns are contagious in the same way other emotional responses, like smiles, frowns and fear, are contagious,” says Campbell.
He and his team showed chimpanzees 3D animations of chimpanzees yawning and showing control mouth movements. The chimpanzees yawned significantly more in response to the yawning animations than they did to the animations showing control mouth movements.
“Yawning in response to the animated yawns showed an empathetic reaction to the animations,” says Campbell.
“Because they showed only involuntary responses to the animations, we believe they empathized with the animations, while knowing they were artificial. This is important for us to know because we can present animations in future experiments knowing the chimpanzees will identify with the animations as if they are other chimpanzees. This opens up the possibility of using animations in many other types of studies,” Campbell adds.
Researchers next plan to show chimpanzees improved and degraded animations of chimpanzee yawns to see how they respond to more and less lifelike animations. This may help researchers understand whether different aspects of animations make them more or less likely to be imitated.
“Such knowledge could tell us how to design animations for children to promote imitation when used therapeutically, as with children with autism spectrum disorder, or to limit imitation when used for entertainment, as with video games,” says Campbell.