Empathy plays an important role in animal social behavior. Since emotional contagion forms one of the bases of empathy, here we study conditions for emotional contagion to be adaptive, compared with other behavioral rules such as behavioral mimicry. We consider the situation where the focal individual (=observer) reacts to a behavior of another individual (=demonstrator). By emotional contagion one spontaneously copies the emotional state of the demonstrator and takes a behavior driven by that emotion. By behavioral mimicry, in contrast, one copies the behavior of the demonstrator itself. Through mathematical models we show that emotional contagion is adaptive when the environmental similarity between the demonstrator and the observer is intermediate. The advantage of adopting emotional contagion over behavioral mimicry increases when observing others' behavior is difficult or cognitively demanding. We show that emotional contagion is often a more flexible strategy than behavioral mimicry in order to cope with the living environment. In other words, emotional contagion often works as a better social learning strategy. These results suggest some ecological conditions that would favor the evolution of emotional contagion, and give a part of the explanations of why emotional contagion is frequently observed in group-living animals.
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