The supermarket robbery hit close to home. It was Lindegaard's local grocery store.
After the crime, a few nearby male employees approached the victim, talking for a few seconds. A female employee left her position at the tobacco counter to walk across the length of the store. She embraced the victim intensely. “She held the victim in her arms for a very long time, as if the victim was a small baby,” Lindegaard said, “hugging her and moving her back and forth.” The victim began to cry.
Women were more likely to console victims than men, Lindegaard and her colleagues reported Wednesday in the journal PLOS One. If a victim was an employee, another employee was more likely than a stranger to soothe the victim, a factor the study described as “social closeness.” These findings and others show that humans are a lot like other great apes.
Only a few species have been scientifically documented consoling victims of aggression: human children, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas. The new study is “the first to observe consolation in adults,” Lindegaard wrote in an email to The Washington Post. Other studies had “concluded that consolation behavior in chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates was similar to humans, but they actually meant human children,” she said.
For both humans and chimpanzees, scientists defined consolation as a friendly touch. The cameras recorded 249 people and 3,680 possible pairs of interactions. Gender, social closeness and the threat of violence played a role. Physical proximity did not.
When robbers wielded weapons, or forcefully threatened victims, the odds of consolation increased sharply. A co-worker was several times more likely to offer consolation than a stranger. Women were about three times more likely to provide comfort than men. In 4 of 22 robberies, no one was consoled.
Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University who was not involved with the research, called for more studies like this one, based on observations instead of surveys. “Many human studies based on questionnaires don't find gender differences in empathy,” he said. “In real-life observations, however, striking gender differences have been found in children, with girls expressing empathy (consolation behavior) more often than boys,” de Waal said, “just as in the present study.”
“The reaction by bystanders, such as embracing and touching of the victim, is extremely similar,” de Waal said. “It is the prototypical empathy response of the primates.”