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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2018

Culture, Chimps, Emotion,
and Empathy: An Interview
With Frans de Waal

Evgeniya Vedernikova and Mary Beth Ahlum, PhD
Nebraska Wesleyan University*
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It is well-known that humans and chimps share 98.8% of their DNA. But have you ever stopped to consider what percentage of our behavior is shared too? Can understanding animals’ behaviors help us understand more about ourselves and how people communicate with and treat one another?
Dr. Frans de Waal is a Dutch/U.S. biologist and primatologist, a leading expert in the field of evolutionary cognition. He is a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and director of the Living Links Center of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He specializes in studies of social behavior and social intelligence in primates in order to better understand the evolution of humanity. As he says on his Facebook page: “I have drawn parallels between primate and human behavior, from aggression to morality and culture.”
His latest books are The Age of Empathy (2009), The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013), and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016). Dr. Frans de Waal visited Nebraska Wesleyan University in March 2017 where he sat down with Evgeniya Vedernikova and Jesse Malmkar for an interview about his perspective on the roles of culture, language, and aggression, for humans and nonhumans alike.
Cultural Issues
EVGENIYA: In Age of Empathy (de Waal, 2009) you mentioned that people have “excessive loyalty to one’s own nation, group or religion . . . Nations think they are superior to their neighbors and religions think they own the truth” (p. 204). What can we do with that?
DE WAAL: People very easily identify with groups. I think racism is partly based on that. Racism is not that the other group is “bad” but that this is my group and this is your group. I think a lot of human behavior can be explained that way. If you ask how you can overcome it, that is very hard. I know, for example, there are now programs to bring Israelis and Palestinians together and help them understand each other. What they basically do is to show Israelis the daily life of a Palestinian, or the other way around. I think that is the only way to help people from one group to understand that the other groups’ lives are not so different from their own.
EVGENIYA: Regarding cultural differences, there are countries that may be considered as collectivist and countries that have more of an individualistic style of life. What are your thoughts on this point?
DE WAAL: I do think the Russians have a more collectivist culture. The Russian Peter Kropotkin (1902) wrote a very interesting book called Mutual Aid about how animals in Siberia survive by huddling together for warmth and protection. It is a socialist-type book about how people need to cooperate more, and that cooperation is successful.
He was opposed, at the time, to Thomas Huxley, a defender of Charles Darwin. Huxley professed every individual for himself: no altruism, no cooperation. Darwin was a much gentler person, than Huxley, who saw many nuances of behavior. Daniel Todes (1989) wrote on Kropotkin and Darwin, Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought. It was about how the Russians have trouble with the world view of competition. It was a very interesting reflection on the collectivism of the Russians compared to the capitalist principles of Huxley and his countrymen.
Language Issues
EVGENIYA: In your last book, you cited Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him” (de Waal, 2016, p. 9). I relate to this in terms of communication issues between different countries and nationalities. People can speak the language, but sometimes it is difficult to understand the mentality of the people in a specific place. This comparison to how humans would not understand the lion, and its explanation, eased my anxiety concerning adaptation.
DE WAAL: There are always big cultural differences. I am not American, I am from Holland, so the language differences are very big. If you plan to stay in the United States, it will take a long time before you find it comfortable in the sense of you expressing yourself or understanding the people. The language differences are much bigger than people think. Also, with the language comes the whole cultural difference, of course.
EVGENIYA: In terms of culture, if people travel more, could they better understand other perspectives?
DE WAAL: Yes, of course. If you don’t travel and don’t speak other languages, then that is more difficult. English speakers can go everywhere and if they can only speak their own language, they don’t notice differences in variation because they do not speak another language. Everyone adapts to them instead of them adapting to others. They go to Japan and they speak English in Japan. So, yes, that is a problem.
EVGENIYA: Why do you think language affects a person’s perceptions so much?
DE WAAL: Language has a lot of cultural elements. Language reflects the culture. For example, French has many more words for the kitchen and cooking than any other language that I know. A lot of their expressions are about cooking. Whereas the Dutch are traders and that is why the Dutch speak many languages. For example, I speak four languages. The Dutch have always been traders. They had ships and would go to places. Since Holland is a very small nation, we needed to speak the language of where we would go.
EVGENIYA: In your last book, you said there is no such thing as “mindreading” but at the same time you said that children read through their hearts (de Waal, 2016, p. 135). Could you elaborate on that?
DE WAAL: Well, “mindreading” is now something like “theory of mind.” People act as though they can read the minds of somebody else. I can only read bodies, so whatever I know about your mind comes from me reading your body: your facial expressions, where you look (your attention), what you see, but I cannot directly read your mind. I think “mindreading” is a bad expression. It is more than “body reading” because I use your body to assess your intentions and your knowledge. Theory of mind makes it seem that I have a “theory” about your mind, but I don’t think it works that way.
For me feelings are something else than emotions. I can observe emotions in animals. Your feelings are what you subjectively experience and what you can communicate to me. You can tell me your feelings if you want. You can say to me that you feel angry. But I do not know what exactly you are feeling. You may be feeling angry at someone you love, but it’s a very complex feeling because it’s anger plus love. I do not know what you are feeling even though I hear the words you are using to describe your emotion.
EVGENIYA: In your book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (de Waal, 2016), you mentioned that cognition does not depend on language. Could you please explain?
DE WAAL: As soon as you need to explain to me what you think, of course you need words. As a result, many psychologists have begun to believe that we need language to think. I don’t think that is necessarily the case. For example, in research on facial expressions, the experimenter presents faces to people and they give you a choice like “happy” or “sad” or “angry” and you find one of the three. People have very good agreement on this. But if we do it differently: if we present facial expressions and then you have to tell me what the emotion is, the agreement is very low, actually. So, we help people to identify emotions with the labels that we give them. We seem to assess faces quite differently so that the language labeling sort of interferes with discovering how we process the faces. Because “angry,” “sad,” and “happy” are such big categories and there are so many emotions in between that are possible, I am not convinced that language is necessary.

Psychology students and Psi Chi members helped to host Dr. Frans de Waal’s visit to Nebraska Wesleyan in March 2017. Evgeniya Vedernikova, the interviewer, is the fifth person from the left.
Humans and Other Animals
EVGENIYA: Do people put themselves higher than the other animals to excuse their aggression toward animals?
DE WAAL: Sometimes, yes. We have this question: Should we eat animals or not? If we move away from that situation, let’s say we are completely vegetarian, we do not eat animals. We still have a question. How do you look at that issue of yourself, our species versus another species?
EVGENIYA: Throughout your book, you talk about the importance of scientific methodology. What gets in the way of an unbiased experiment?
DE WAAL: I think the main bias is that we underestimate animals. We like to keep them simple and so we give them a simple test and that confirms that they are simple. If you put a rat in the box and you make it press a lever, there is not much the rat can do. And it’s going to confirm all your beliefs. Whereas if you look at wild rats in the fields, you can obtain a sample of complex behaviors. A rat is a very complex animal, but not if you put it in a Skinner box.
EVGENIYA: So, people think that animals are not intelligent and give them tasks that do not require high intelligence?
DE WAAL: Yes, I think part of the problem is that our beliefs about animals are used to justify what we do to them. I remember I was in Vienna, where they have a Clever Dog lab; people brought their dogs, and they tested them. Then, they wanted to test pigs, and they wanted to call it the Clever Pig lab. The local farmers objected. They did not want a Clever Pig lab. Pig lab was okay, but a Clever Pig lab was not. They did not want people to hear that pigs may be clever. But pigs are as clever as dogs basically. That can create cognitive dissonance in people who eat pork. Because we do not eat chimpanzees, we do not have this problem with chimpanzees. If we were eating them, we might have a different look at that.
EVGENIYA: While reading your book (de Waal, 2016), there is an impression that you are fighting for the clarity of the science, for objectivity and argumentativeness. What is the reason of your fight?
DE WAAL: All my life I have been working with intelligent animals, and all my life I have heard from people that I should not overestimate them. When other scientists suggest that you can explain everything animals do with very simple rules, I have my doubts. For me, it has been a long fight to get people to consider a different view of animal behavior, which now, I think, has become pretty dominant. People who wanted to simplify animals, these people are disappearing, and a new, young generation of scientists thinks very differently of animals. So, the book reflects the struggles that we have had.
EVGENIYA: Please tell us about how it is to work with chimps. Aren’t they dangerous?
DE WAAL: One must always be careful. You can trust some chimps more than others. Chimps can bite fingers. One female did it even with the people she knew, and some try to do it with strangers all the time. Even with the people that she knew, this one female chimp seemed to have been waiting for the right occasion. Most animals have a certain expression when they want to bite you. I notice the expression and know that the interaction is not going too well. The chimps will try to get you close to them by being very friendly. Or they will offer you something pleasant. They are much trickier than most animals are.
I do not know why. They must have had a bad experience with people or something. Other chimps will never bite and can be trusted. That’s a difference in individuals. There is a lot of research in animal personality where they find the same five dimensions of human personality in animals.
Your Legacy
EVGENIYA: What is the meaning of your work? After writing your books, what changes do you want to see in people? What effect are you expecting?
DE WAAL: I am not sure it’s applied directly to my work, but my work has an effect, of course, on how we perceive animals. That is how it may have a big impact. In the sense of… If we look at the animals differently, we may also begin treating them differently. I do feel that farm animals should be treated better. All these activists campaign about zoos, but I think the animals in good zoos actually have wonderful lives. Compare zoo life to most pig and chicken factory farms, and you’ll see the difference. I think the farm animals are the big problem. There are billions of animals in factory farms whereas zoos hold just several thousands of animals. Farm animals urgently need better treatment. I do not write specifically on that topic, but that could be an implication of the work that I do.
My work is not just about making people aware of animals, but also helping people to be aware that they are animals. Making them aware of themselves.
EVGENIYA: Have people’s comments convinced you that you have reached your goal? Do you see changes?
DE WAAL: I do not know. There is a change in the last 25 years in the way people look at animals. That’s for sure. These are big changes. For example, there is much more interest in evolution, much more interest in the biology of behavior, in the neurosciences. Genetic research helped with that also. I think everything has been moving in the right direction for the last 25 years. Some countries move faster than others.
EVGENIYA: What do you think the future of empathy is?
DE WAAL: My basic definition of empathy is that the animal relates to others emotionally and mentally. I write a lot about empathy, and we do research on empathy in chimps, in dogs, in elephants, in other animals, and in humans of course. I think empathy is a very important human capacity that has only been studied for the last 10 to 15 years. Before this time, people did not take it seriously. Now, we have neuroscience, we have psychological experiments, we have a lot of ways to study empathy. So, I think it’s very important to understand empathy.
EVGENIYA: What are you working on next?
DE WAAL: I am writing about emotions. Human and animal emotions. People sometimes think that animals experience very few emotions or very basic emotions, but I am not convinced that humans have more emotions than animals. Some emotions, like shame and guilt and embarrassment, which are very self-conscious emotions, are probably more developed in humans, that is my guess. But overall, the emotional repertoire of humans and other mammals is probably very similar.
De Waal, F. B. M. (2009). The age of empathy. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
De Waal, F. B. M. (2013). The bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
De Waal, F. B. M. (2016). Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Todes, D. P. (1989). Darwin without Malthus: The struggle for existence in Russian revolutionary thought (Monographs on the history and philosophy of Biology). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


*The Nebraska Wesleyan University Psi Chi chapter was one of the 22 founding
chapters of Psi Chi.

Born and raised in Russia, Evgeniya Vedernikova earned her undergraduate degree in psychology in France, at the University of Lille. She spent a year in the United States as an international exchange student at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Her interests are emotions, mindfulness, motivation, and culture. Evgeniya is glad she was able to see, analyze, and compare the cultures of Russia, France, and the United States because the knowledge of various cultures enriches us and helps us see issues from different angles.

Mary Beth Ahlum, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Nebraska Wesleyan University where she loves teaching an array of psychology classes in developmental and cognitive psychology at a small liberal arts university. She was raised in eastern Pennsylvania but now considers Nebraska home. After graduating from Denison University (OH) with a major in psychology, Dr. Ahlum continued her education at Pennsylvania State University where she earned a master’s degree and a PhD in educational psychology. Her scholarship involves (a) intersections of our identities, (b) integration of culture and psychology, and (c) impact of positive emotions on general well-being. Dr. Ahlum is an Associate Editor for Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research.


Copyright 2018 (Vol. 23, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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