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So I saw this interesting article titled, “Consoling Voles Hint at Animal Empathy.” The basic idea stated is if voles have a relationship, and are then separated and one of the voles sees the other put in a stressful situation, the unharmed vole would immediately begin to console the hurt/traumatized vole when they were reunited.

My question is not about the validity of the concept—I mean it’s a cute theory that I am willing to accept—but this section on a similar study on rats confused me a bit; bold emphasis is mine:

The researchers billed these rescues as evidence of empathy—that “rats free their cagemate in order to end distress.” But others argued that the rescuers could simply have been behaving selfishly, in an attempt to get social contact.

So in the context of this article—and perhaps the source article that article cites—what exactly is the meaning of “social contact.”

  • Is the idea presented that empathy is a selfless act where one sees someone/something in distress and—without personal concerns—acts to aid the other person.
  • And that “social contact”—devoid of empathy—is a selfish concept where the person acting in response to someone/something is doing so only to benefit themselves by seeming superficially empathetic to others or perhaps simply taking advantage of someone in distress to their own future benefit?
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    $\begingroup$ My two cents. Empathy involves embodying others' feelings (or generating interoceptive predictions about others' affective experiences), which can motivate prosocial behavior (e.g., rescuing). Empathy isn't truly "selfless," as the resultant prosocial behaviors are (largely?) driven by the empathizer's desire to downregulate his/her distress. A need for social contact is self-oriented and driven by the rewarding nature of affective, social touch and engagement--not by the desire to help. So, a single behavior (however conceptualized) can have multiple, non-overlapping psychological causes. $\endgroup$ – mrt Jan 22 '16 at 4:10

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