Three-dimensional computer animations elicited a naturalistic, involuntary empathy response from chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) (#43)
Computer animation offers unmatched control over stimuli. The liability of using animation is whether they will elicit naturalistic responses. Essentially, all applications of animation must pass this “proof of concept” phase. I will discuss a series of experiments that used contagious yawning as a measure of involuntary empathy in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Yawns are thought to be contagious for the same reasons as smiles, frowns, and other facial expressions (e.g., fear), and thus contagious yawning is frequently classified as emotional contagion, a basic form of empathy. Empirical evidence from a variety of measures and species supports this association. In one experiment, my colleagues and I presented chimpanzees with 3D computer animated chimpanzees. Using Lightwave 3D (NewTek, Inc.), our animator rendered three different chimpanzees and programmed four different movements: a yawn and three other expressions used for controls. We found that the chimpanzees yawned significantly more when viewing the yawns than the controls, demonstrating contagious yawning. Follow-up studies have presented chimpanzees with yawns from a variety of video recorded subjects, including familiar conspecifics, unfamiliar conspecifics, familiar humans, unfamiliar humans, and an unfamiliar species. Not all of these stimuli elicited contagious yawning. Thus, it appears that the chimpanzees had some kind of positive affective engagement with the animations for an empathic response to be shown. I will place the results of the animation study in the context of the results with video footage, as well as other studies on involuntary empathy utilizing artificial stimuli. Having shown that computer animations can elicit a naturalistic response in chimpanzees, I will discuss how this tool could be used to great effect in future studies.