What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Better Human Beings

11/12/2013 03:32 pm ET
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Our animal counterparts have quite a few lessons to offer (the value of napping, for one). Humans are fundamentally social animals, and in learning to coexist more peacefully, the animal kingdom could teach us a thing or two.

Research has shown that animals are capable of great depth of emotion and complex systems of social cooperation, and we know that animals can care for each other and for human beings.

"Science has discovered a lot about the inner lives of diverse species, more than we often give ourselves credit for," Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives Of Animals, wrote in a Greater Good blog post. "Indeed, animals’ lives aren’t all that private, hidden, or secret; a flurry of research has offered insight into the emotional lives of animals. We now know that animals have a point of view and that they experience deep feelings."

Here are 11 things that animals' social behavior can teach us about being good to each other.

They respect their elders.

african elephant

In African elephant tribes, matriarchs remain the leaders of the group until they die, often well into their 60s and 70s, and the elephants benefit from having an elder matriarch's experience. Research has shown that elephant groups with older matriarchs are more effective at fighting off predatory lions. Matriarchs older than 60 did not show any signs of cognitive decline, and they had more success recognizing and responding to predatory threats.

“Otherwise you might expect them to marginalize until they die, but this suggests that they don’t have the same sort of cognitive decline as humans,” evolutionary ecologist Karen McComb told the New York Times. “Of course, human women in their 60s are doing quite fine, aren’t they?”

They exhibit signs of empathy and compassion.

dog head lap

Anyone who's had a longtime pet knows that animals can be unbelievably attuned to humans' states of emotional and physical well-being. A recent study backed that up, showing that dogs yawn more in response to their owners' yawns than to others, which suggests that dogs are empathetic towards their owners.

Plenty of research suggests animals are capable of great depths of empathy. In one study, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler from the National Institute of Mental Health had intended to examine young children's emotional responses to family members' emotions, but found that some pets showed as much worry as children when their adult owners feigned distress. The pets would stick near their owners and put their heads on their laps in response to the display of emotion.

And in a now-famous 1964 study, psychiatrist Jules Masserman found that rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that would deliver them food if doing so would hurt another monkey. One monkey avoided pulling the chain for 12 days (until virtually starving) to avoid hurting a companion.

They cuddle.

They're nice to their neighbors.

red colobus monkey

Monkeys who live in groups often exhibit highly pro-social behaviors. Red colobus monkeys (pictured above) are so friendly that they even socialize with members of other species, according to BBC Nature, grooming others as a sign of friendliness and respect. Baboons are also highly social, sometimes interacting playfully with neighboring groups of chimpanzees.

They can sense others' feelings.

cat curl up

We've all heard that animals can detect fear, but their ability to tap into what others are thinking and feeling (even subconsciously) extends far beyond sensing either weakness or a threat. In one particularly extraordinary case, a cat named Oscar at a Rhode Island nursing home predicted the deaths of close to 50 elderly individuals by planting himself on their beds just hours before they died.

"His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families," geriatrician Dr. David Dosa wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. "Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone. For his work, he is highly regarded by the physicians and staff at Steere House and by the families of the residents whom he serves."

They help each other out.

elephants

Elephants are some of the smartest animals out there -- and they might be better than many humans when it comes to working together. Evolutionary psychologists have found that elephants are highly adept in social coordination when pursuing shared goals. A Cambridge study found that elephants can learn to coordinate with a partner on a task that required the pair to simultaneously pull two ends of the same rope in order to obtain a reward. Not only did they act effectively together, but if their partner was delayed, they waited for up to 45 seconds.

They're diplomatic.

hawaii dolphins

Dolphins have a sophisticated "language" and communication system, using sounds, in some cases, to avoid violence or confrontation. The common bottlenose dolphin has a vocal repertoire of 14 sonically distinct social signals, according to scientist J. Andrea Bernal Shirai. The dolphins "burst-pulsed" as a way to avoid possible aggression in situations of high excitement and energy, possibly when competing for food.

"Bottlenose dolphins make longer burst-pulsed sounds when they are hunting and at times of high aggression, and make it possible for each individual to maintain its position in the pod's social hierarchy," Phys Org explained. "Dolphins emit these strident sounds, for example, when in the presence of other individuals moving towards the same prey, forcing the least dominant mammal to quickly move away in order to avoid confrontation."

They can find love in a hopeless place.

swami

An unlikely love affair between a swan and a tractor reveals an important truth from the animal kingdom: Love is blind, and it can be found in even the most surprising places. Swans mate for life, and when eight-year-old Schwani couldn't find another swan to be with, he sought partnership elsewhere. At a German hotel, the swan became infatuated with the groundskeeper's tractor. According to CBS, Schwani "just can't get enough of the mechanical companion."

"He follows me around all the time, no matter where I go -- whether I cross the street or go deep into the animal garden to take came of the pathways, the swan comes along," hotelier Herman Josef Hericks told CBS. "And if I take a break, then it stands right next to it ... as if ready to get in."

They enjoy group playtime.

They make love last.

wolves

Many species of animals mate for life, including swans, wolves, albatrosses, termites, bald eagles and gibbons (the closest species to humans to do so, although they do occasionally seek pleasure outside the relationship). Most bird species that mate for life, like eagles, pigeons and turtle doves, will only choose another partner after their mate has died. And despite popular wisdom from Friends, lobsters don't make the list (their mating system more closely resembles a harem).

They get by with a little help from their friends.

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