A Comparative Approach to Consolation

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Do species other than humans offer solace to victims in conflict situations? Over 3 decades of animal behavior research on consolation—defined as post-conflict affiliation directed from bystanders to recent recipients of aggression1—point to yes. However, the number of species in which it has been formally documented is limited, primarily to the great apes. The implication is that consolation behavior evinces the capacity for empathy. Indeed, chimpanzee consolation has been shown to reduce stress in the recipient and take place primarily among close social partners. Both findings are consistent with what we know about empathetic responses in humans. A 2010 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tested whether additional factors that influence human empathy modulate consolation in other apes.

Romero and colleagues2 analyzed data from over 3,000 conflict and post-conflict observations in two outdoor-housed groups of captive chimpanzees. As expected, consolation occurred disproportionally among close social partners (i.e. kin and affiliation partners). Consolation behavior was also more typical of female than male chimpanzees, consistent with findings reported in humans and the general supposition that empathy originally evolved in the context of maternal care. An exception to this pattern was formed by the highest-ranking males, who were common consolers—likely as part of a ‘policing strategy’ to pacify social tension within the group. Consolation also occurred more frequently when opponents did not reconcile (i.e. engage in post-conflict affiliation) themselves, suggesting that it may be a response to victims’ needs.

These and other reported findings are in line with the notion that consolation in chimpanzees (like humans) may be attributable to empathic or sympathetic concern. By demonstrating that consolation is not a human-unique phenomenon, this perspective allows us to go beyond human research to understand the bases of peaceful post-conflict behavior. What types of individuals and relationships exhibit strong empathy, and how does this affect the likelihood of consolation? Can increasing empathy promote more successful consolation? When is consolation needed (vs. other post-conflict strategies)? What behaviors are most effective? (As an intriguing aside, the most typical consolation behaviors in this study were grooming and embracing). Where these processes converge and diverge will enhance our understanding of conflict and subsequent interactions across species.


1 de Waal, F.B.M. & van Roosmalen, A. (1979). Reconciliation and consolation among chimpanzees. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 5: 55-66.

2 Romero, T., Castellanos, M.A., & de Waal, F.B.M. (2010). Consolation as possible expression of sympathetic concern among chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(27): 12110-12115.


Christine Webb

Christine Webb is a doctoral student in Psychology at Columbia University. Broadly, her research interests include reconciliation, individual differences, evolution, and motivation. She received her B.A. in Psychology from Emory University, where she studied the social behavior of brown capuchin monkeys for two years. The following year, she worked as… MORE >

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