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Yesterday there was a horrific car accident just steps from my home. Upon hearing the sound of the crash, several neighbours ran to the street to make sure everyone was okay. As several ambulance arrived, and we caught a glimpse of the situation, many of us began to gasp. Looking over at my friend, I saw she was crying.

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Though my friend did not know the victims, she was clearly affected. My reaction was to hug her, and keep hugging her as we both felt this innate worry and sadness for the victims of the crash.

This instance — of consoling, and of empathy — would later remind me of a recent study Marie Lindegaard, a scientist at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, led.

The study reviewed 22 commercial robberies in order to better understand the behaviour of victims and bystanders.

One of the crimes involved four black-clad gunmen rushing into a Netherlands supermarket, the security camera capturing them waving a gun in the face of a female employee, who handed over the requested money. Following the crime, nearby male employees approached the victim, talking to her briefly. A female employee left her position at the tobacco counter to give the victim a hug.

“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.” Upon this embrace, the victim began to cry.

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Of this crime, and the 21 others reviewed, Lindegaard and her colleagues concluded that women were more likely to console victims. The results were published in the journal PLOS One.

The study also found that if a victim was an employee, another employee was more likely than a stranger to soothe the victim, which is referred to as “social closeness.”

Such findings, among others, suggest that humans are much like other great apes, because only a few species have been scientifically documented consoling victims of aggression: human children, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas.

While previous studies had found chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates to have consolation behaviour similar to human children, the new study is the first to observe consolation in adults. A friendly touch is considered the scientific gesture of consolation for both humans and chimpanzees.

The study, which looked at camera recordings of 249 people and 3,680 possible pairs of interactions, found that gender, social closeness, and the threat of violence played a role, while physical proximity did not. And when violence, whether it be forceful threats or weapons being used, was present, consolation spiked significantly.

“Many human studies based on questionnaires don’t find gender differences in empathy,” said Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University who was not involved with the research. “In real-life observations, however, striking gender differences have been found in children, with girls expressing empathy more often than boys,” said de Waal, who called for more studies like this one, based on observations instead of surveys, “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.”


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