Humans have a compulsion to simulate the activities and behaviors of others in their social group, but why is that? The findings of a new study may change the way that we understand empathy and phenomena of emotional and behavioral contagion.

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New research suggests a different way of looking at the evolution of empathy.

Empathy is a complex occurrence that researchers sometimes define as “feeling concern for others [and] sharing and comprehending their emotions, prompting motivation to help them.”

While empathy may not always come naturally, it is related to other phenomena that occur mechanically and are tied to mirroring other people’s behaviors or emotions.

One example is that of contagious yawning, though some potentially unhealthful behaviors, such as echopraxia (involuntarily mirroring someone’s movements) and echolalia (compulsively echoing someone’s speech), also fall into this category.

Existing research has mostly looked at various simulating behaviors as a social learning tool, examining situations in which people adopt mirroring in a social context as a cooperation strategy. Such studies show how imitation behaviors are useful in contexts in which cooperation is preferable.

Now, Fabrizio Mafessoni, Ph.D., from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, and Prof. Michael Lachmann from the Santa Fe Institute, in New Mexico, have started exploring the role of “simulative strategies” outside their more obvious potential as an adaptive tool.

In a new study paper that appears in the journal Scientific Reports, the two researchers propose a new game theory-type approach to the study of simulative strategies that allows for a different explanation of why these strategies have evolved in humans.

In their study, the researchers decided to see whether empathy and similar mechanisms could develop in the absence of a social context that calls for cooperation.

Mafessoni and Lachmann call such mechanisms “mind-reading strategies” and explain that the goal of their current research was to “contrast several mind-reading strategies and show that in complex social contexts, where there may be insufficient social information to infer others’ behavior, simulative strategies will evolve to improve the ability to infer others’ actions.”

The two investigators argue that humans, as well as other social animals, engage in mind-reading strategies on a spontaneous basis, “constantly running simulations of what other minds might be doing,” as Lachmann says, and not just in order to foster cooperation.

To illustrate this point, the researchers mention the existence of “mirror neurons,” a set of brain cells that light up in two contexts: when a person, for example, raises their own hand and when that person observes someone else raising a hand.

In applying their specially developed model to the evolution of empathy and emotional contagion, the researchers noted that an individual can coordinate with someone who they are observing, even when doing so will bring them no benefit.

In short, the researchers believe that empathy and similar mechanisms have evolved simply as a tool for envisioning what other members of the same species think and feel.

Manfessoni says that, according to their current research, “The very origin of empathy may lie in the need to understand other individuals.”

Lachmann believes that their model “completely change[s] how we think about humans and animals” because it finds a common explanation for a large set of emotional and behavioral simulation phenomena.

In the future, the authors hope to test whether participating more in simulative behaviors associated with gaining perspective about others’ mental states also means that an individual is more likely to favor cooperation. The researchers write:

In addition, more studies are needed […] to assess whether perspective-taking skills correlate with emotional contagion and empathy-driven cooperation. Do species or individuals who simulate more also show more empathy-driven cooperation?”