Science & Technology

Post-aggression behavior in humans reveals their empathy levels

Humans are motivated to console victims of robberies out of empathy, according to a study published in the journal “PLOS ONE.” This post-aggression consolation behavior is also seen in chimpanzees.

The ability to console is viewed as a human achievement in the social philosophy field. Social philosophy states that consolation alleviates uneasiness and functions because of empathy and trust. While there are widespread publications on the philosophical nature of consolation, there are few studies that focus on human adult consolation in uncontrolled settings. This indicates how challenging it is to discreetly observe natural human behavior.

Yet, in nonhuman primates, consolation was first seen in chimpanzees. Consoling behavior in nonhuman primates noticeably reduces anxiety in victims of violent attacks, especially in the instance that an impartial bystander starts open contact with a victim of aggression. Chimpanzees offer consolation by hugging and kissing the victim.

Since the ape species are similar to humans, researchers have set out to examine post-aggression behavior in adults. The police departments of Amsterdam and Rotterdam allowed authors of the study to see unedited closed-circuit TV footage of events that the police had ranked as robbery or attempted robbery. A robbery is categorized as an event where goods or money are taken by force or by threat of force. Retrieving the footage was permitted if the data were not openly shared and under the condition that the names of the people in the footage would not be revealed.

Videos where images were unfocused or when communication among people was inadequate were removed from the data. The final study included 22 cases, and the shortest video was 14 seconds long.

Two observers saw and independently converted the videos using the Observer XT program. Prior to the study, the two observers completed two days of Observer XT training and were instructed to report on three factors: the number of people involved in the repercussions, the purpose of the location—such as a supermarket or hotel lobby—and the size of the setting, classified as “large” if it would take a typical person over five seconds to walk from one side to the other, or “small” in other cases.

The first documented individual trait of interest was the level of victimization the person endured during the robbery. These traits included whether the person stood near the felon, received only a threat, experienced physical force, experienced both threat and physical force or none of the aforementioend. Individual traits also encompassed whether the person was an employee or a customer—this stemmed from clothing, the type of activity the person exhibited or the position in the room, such as behind a desk.

It also included whether the person was male or female, the approximate age of the person and the ethnic origin of the person, derived by their hair and skin color.

At the incident level, there were 22 recordings of the repercussions of the robbery. The average time period of the 22 recordings was 94 seconds. The average number of people present in the aftermath of the robberies was 11. The average number of customers was 7.5, and the average number of employees was 3.6.

At the individual level, the footage included 249 people—132 males and 117 females. Of that, 166 were customers, 79 were employees and four were individuals who could not be recognized as either employees or customers.

The results revealed that 38 of the 249 people offered consolation to others, and 24 received consolation from others. Females were more expected to offer consolation than males, as the likelihood of consolation was 2.7 percent higher when the prospective recipient was female. However, females were not more likely to receive consolation than males, which defies previous studies that implied different gender roles. The likelihood of receiving consolation grew by a factor of 36.3 percent for victims of either force or threat with a weapon.

August 1, 2017

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