500,000 people have been kidnapped from all over the world by aliens.

The aliens want to see if humans have empathy, and they can't understand our languages, as we speak they hear just random noises coming out of our mouths.

Scientifically speaking what is the most effective way for aliens to measure in a laboratory if humans have or lack empathy?

For the sake of the question let's say they won't use hyper technology to get inside our heads, instead they will use some quite primitive technology similar to ours, so nothing that resembles magic or things which are way to futuristic.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

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    Understanding / judging empathy requires understanding the underlying human emotions. If the aliens don't have similar emotions to us (and can't understand our language), I don't think they can test if we have empathy. – Nicolai Nov 12 at 8:58
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    @Nicolai We can't see most colors but we know some birds and shrimps can see more colors than us, most of which we can't even imagine, yet we've never ''seen'' those colors, but we know those animals can see them... Same with empathy or anything at all. – user56803 Nov 12 at 9:03
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    @Nicolai we also know that spiders can use their hairs to kind of ''sense'' sound, but we've never been able to sense sound with our hairs. You don't need direct experience of something in order to measure it. – user56803 Nov 12 at 9:06
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    It's not the same actually, because color has an easily recognisable physical component (electromagnetic waves of a certain frequency), emotions do NOT have this. We - as humans - know that some animals feel pain (which isn't even an emotion), because they have pain receptors. For actual emotions we can only guess if animals have them, because the animals are not able to talk to us, so we don't know if the emotions we perceive in them are similar to what we feel. – Nicolai Nov 12 at 9:08
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    @Demigan Note that the hard-science tag only requires scientific citations. If there are published, peer-reviewed, works accessible in the field, that would seem to qualify. In that sense, psychology wouldn't really be very different from, say, economics; it's hard to do a double-blind experiment in that field, too! – a CVn Nov 12 at 12:05

14 Answers 14

up vote 27 down vote accepted

I'm legitimately surprised that this hasn't come up yet:


A test setup like this, with a set of humans being placed in apparent danger (if your aliens are trying to be humane (so to speak), the danger could be simulated) and another set being offered a choice between saving them and getting a personal reward, would be a fairly basic way to test this, especially if your aliens do control groups (Do humans save another when there's no reward for not doing so? What about when there is? Etc.), test related vs. unrelated/associated vs. unassociated subjects.

  • Well you are the first with that experiment but it seems most people have picked up on there being behaviorally quantifiable responses that indicate empathy. Sadly the leading answer thinks alien brains and human brains somehow would share the same roadmaps. – anon Nov 12 at 14:33
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    Fair, but I did mean that I was surprised I hadn't seen this experiment specifically linked, since it's a fairly well known recent example of an experiment literally set up to test empathy. But I would agree that any tests here should be behavioral vs. neurological, for the reasons you mentioned. Aliens would know what empathetic behavior looks like, but may not know what human brains look like. – QWriter Nov 12 at 14:35
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    I was actually coming to see if someone had posted this. I think this is the best option because rats aren't humans (duh), which means that this research is probably more on par with the experience of an alien species attempting to figure out how humans work. – L.S. Cooper Nov 12 at 17:44
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    @TylerS.Loeper I mean, now we're getting into discussions of affective vs. cognitive empathy, as well as studies showing that people can empathize better within some groups than across those groups (for a trivial example, studies show that autistic people can more easily understand the feelings of other autistic people than of non-autistic people, and vice versa), which requires a lot more ability to communicate than a test of "can [x] recognize another's distress and help?" Hence why I'd distinguish perspective taking tests and the setup of this question. – QWriter Nov 13 at 19:20
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    @QWriter, Good point. And an excellent point about the people with autism recognizing each other's emotions more easily. It opens a lot of interesting questions that are possibly beyond the scope of the question. Like maybe humans can experience empathy towards each other, but maybe not(?) towards aliens who possibly don't even have the same range of emotions. This question is too interesting. – Tyler S. Loeper Nov 13 at 19:26

We humans have mirror neurons in our brains. Makes this test a pretty trivial one. Just show to one person some negative and positive things done to other person, record activity in that part of the brain.

I'm pretty sure the response will be uneven when testing different pairs of humans as all sort of biases would manifest.

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    As your own source already mentions this isn't determined as fact yet. Mirror neurons so far have only been tied to learning of skills, not empathy. A baby who sees someone wave for example will have the same neural pathways activate, allowing the baby to more easily learn movements that others use around him. This isn't empathy as a sociopath is just as capable of using these pathways, but he's still unable to truly project what feelings someone else is experiencing. – Demigan Nov 12 at 9:24
  • @anon most of aliens' brains work in a predictable way; their body language is a complete mystery. – alamar Nov 12 at 13:01
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    @alamar well at least you have some notion their physiology can be beyond comprehension, tell me how do you propose to take an MRI of a metallic based alien or how do you intend to quantify neural activity in a non neural based decentralized brain structure. How do you know pain in such a structure is pain and not ecstasy. If I shock the liquid a few times and leave the cables laying around I can tell if it likes it or not by its propensity to willingly act with or avoid the cables. – anon Nov 12 at 13:50
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    SMFH how do you think we associate regions of the human brain with emotions or bodily functions. Because at some point they were identified to a physical/behavioral observation. Without the relative observations one cannot hope to map a completely foreign brain. This answer is like trying to use a map of new York city to navigate the streets of Shanghai. – anon Nov 12 at 14:16
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    Regardless of whether alien brains are similar to ours or not, the only reason we're able to associate mirror neurons with empathy is because we have observed them light up in association with behavior that we know is empathetic. We have to be able to identify the empathetic behavior by other means before we can determine that they are associated with mirror neurons. If we don't have another way to identify empathetic behavior, the mere lighting up of mirror neurons tells us absolutely nothing. – Bridgeburners Nov 14 at 14:39

Unfortunately this sort of experiment has been done. I read about it as a teenager. It may have been carried out by Josef Mengele I choose not to remember.

In essence relatives were paired up and one was tortured. It was noted whether the relative would be willing to take the pain instead of letting their relative suffer. E.g. would a mother agree to take torture to save her child from torture.

I prefer not to remember any more about this or dig up its history. The records are out there if you are interested.


You may also wish to investigate the Milgram Experiment which is less harrowing.

It involved subjects giving what they believed to be electric shocks to another subject (who was actually an actor). There were no electric shocks involved but the actor pretended to be in increasing pain. https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html

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    This would have been my answer only more bluntly put. But basically take 2 sentient species put them in a room and torture the hell out of one and watch the others reaction. You don't need words to understand pain and suffering. – anon Nov 12 at 12:22
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    Please add something like: Pain can be quantified by an organisms defensive or avoidance response to an applied stimuli (No organism seeks out something that is painful). Empathy can be quantified by an organism taking action to ease the suffering of an organism subjected to a painful stimuli. – anon Nov 12 at 14:04
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    I'm not sure the Millgram Experiment is any less horrifying than the unnamed one... – Draco18s Nov 12 at 16:53
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    Draco - Because no-one was actually physically harmed in Millgram. In the other case a mother might be told, "I will torture you. If you can't stand it, you can ask me to stop. I will, but then I will torture your child instead. You can choose that at any time." Then actual torture would take place leaving the mother with a horrific decision. Suffer unbearable agony herself or watch her child suffer it. – chasly from UK Nov 12 at 19:44
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    In the Milgram Experience, the people who were expected to stop the torture were, in fact, very stressed by the experiment. So much so that this case is often used as to why there are review boards for experiments involving humans. However, it was the presence of the outside authority to which people deferred that allowed for the (simulated) push beyond lethal levels. So, whether the experiment indicates empathy is a bit harder to understand, as it appears people will set aside empathy (or at least not act upon it) if they believe the action has been approved by an authority figure. – KevinO Nov 13 at 15:58

Fortunately, even with "primitive" (relatively speaking), technology empathy is fairly easy to measure even without understanding your subjects' languages.

To complete this experiment you'll first need to locate the main cognitive center of your species of choice. Look for a dense network of stuff that is electromagnetically active. It'll likely be found encased in some sort of dense protective shell/box. Use the clustering of sense organs in one place to inform your search, the main cognitive center will usually be found within the general vicinity of this clustering.

Once you're confident you've found what we're looking for you're going to need a large number of individuals from your chosen species-oh, it looks like you've already got that sorted. Excellent.

Next, designate pairs of individuals. One will be the "experiencer" and the other will be the (prospective) "empathizer".

Now find a way to measure the electromagnetic activity of your species' cognitive center. I realize that's vague but there's not much to say besides suggesting a bunch of trial and error. Depending on the anatomy of the species in question you may be able to simply place electromagnetic sensors on the surface of the individual encasing its cognitive center, or you may need to implant sensors directly onto the latter by means of surgery.

Anyways, once you've figured that out outfit each of the members of a pair of creatures with your electromagnetic measuring system.

Now here comes the fun, uh-the necessary part. Inflict damage of some kind (be creative) onto the designated "experiencer" while the "empathizer" is in proximity. Depending on what sort of senses your creatures have and where their sense organs are located you may need to orient your empathizer in a specific direction relative to the location of the experiencer for proper experimental efficacy.

Now compare the measured cognitive response of the experiencer and the potential empathizer. Are they the same? If, so, you've detected empathy!

Of course, this could simply be a fluke, any sound experiment needs to be repeated to weed out anomalous readings. That's where the previously mentioned large number of individuals comes in. Repeat the experiment many times to comfirm your results. Remember to vary what damage you inflict onto the experiencer in each instance. Oh what fun!

  • has any similar or related experiment ever been used in reality? – user56803 Nov 12 at 9:40
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    Also note that the response to seeing someone in pain is not to be confused with empathy, it could very well be a fight-or-flight response (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fight-or-flight_response) – GretchenV Nov 12 at 9:40
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    The problem here is repetition. In WWI for example new recruits would still have empathy for hurt or fallen comrades. Most by the end would have little empathy to stay sane in the trenches. This is another reason why this isnt a hard science question: repetition of the exact same experiment with the exact same parameters/people can yield different results, and depending on severity and the situation the difference in results can be extreme. – Demigan Nov 12 at 10:18
  • @GretchenV There is no way empathy can be mistaken for fight or flight. But the lack of empathy could be mistaken for fight or flight as the organism prioritizes its own survival over the victims. – anon Nov 12 at 14:21
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    While we know this will work on humans, true aliens may ignore the general rule that a cognitive center is electromagnetic here on Earth. There may not be a single species with that mechanism on their planet. – Emilio M Bumachar Nov 13 at 11:59

For an Extremely Low Tech Solution, Drop the Capitives on Island(s)

Solitary creatures will scatter. Some, like male bears, will completely isolate themselves. Some, like female bears and their cubs, will keep together with their young until the young are old enough, while others, like lions, will remain in pairs demonstrating a band of increasing - but very low - empathy.

Empathic creatures will form groups. Dogs will form packs where even the weak are cared for. Monkeys will develop specialized labor. These things are impossible - absent language - without empathy to cover the gap.

In your aliens + humans case, if you drop them on an island with limited resources, you might get one of the following behaviors. A group of sociopaths would likely scatter to "do it themselves". A group of highly empathetic will form a village of some sort. The level at which the weakest in the group, or rebels against authority are cared for gives you an idea of how empathetic the society is.

The aliens may even quantify empathy: 100% - $(number of isolated captives) \over (total number captives)$

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    There are other reasons why individuals might group together. To name a few factors: protection against predators, knowledge, power, wealth and reproduction are all easier with or enabled by having some sort of group. – NotThatGuy Nov 12 at 14:16
  • Those same possible benefits exist for animals (or even people) who aren't able to stand each other's company – James McLellan Nov 12 at 18:28
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    Sociopaths would be more likely to lead a group of survivors than scatter to the winds. They understand perfectly well that they can use other people to their advantage. – Erik Nov 13 at 12:04
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    Groupings can be done for purely selfish reasons since each individual may determine they are better off in the group. Empathy is unnecessary. Similarly, humans can (though rarely) choose to be solitary while having empathy. It is even conceivable a being may choose to be solitary because it is too empathetic and finds experiencing the sympathetic emotions from other creatures unbearable. – TimothyAWiseman Nov 13 at 18:14

Crude/low tech version: Show them a video of someone getting kicked in the groin really hard, with audio of a sickening "crunch". Observe resulting wince/flinch/shudder/protective covering of area.

Edit in response to comments
Empathy is about understanding or sharing a feeling or reaction. Without necessarily understanding what a specific feeling is or reaction means, the aliens can invoke various actions and see that there is a reaction, and an approximate magnitude thereof.

Once they find a suitable action/reaction they can then display it to the humans - they have no idea whether they are causing pain, laughter, sadness, or erotic stimulation, and quite frankly, they don't care. The important thing is observing whether the display generates a sympathetic reaction in the second subject.

For best results, this will be repeated with a variety of action/reaction pairs

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    Aliens don't understand our languages. Why should they understand pain? Also, I am fairly sure such a scene would trigger laughing in the audience (it's a standard comedy trope), so the aliens might think we are a bunch of sadists... – L.Dutch Nov 12 at 12:03
  • @L.Dutch well pain is nothing more than a sensor for damage to one's body, it is safe to assume that any creature that is not a coral or plant has some kind of sensor for damage. – user56803 Nov 12 at 12:11
  • That might work for aliens that are mammalian males. Aliens with radically different anatomies might understand the pain, but may not grasp the significance of a groin kick (especially males). – a4android Nov 12 at 12:24
  • @a4android Male or female, it's painful to both. Even if the aliens have different anatomies, the concept of "squishy bit with lots and lots of nerve receptors" as a viable target for stimulations is pretty universal – Chronocidal Nov 12 at 13:07
  • empathy meets schadenfreude – anon Nov 12 at 15:23

Tl/Dr: It's always difficult to write short answers about tricky words like "empathy." However, if we use some philosophy to pin it down to a more abstract concept based on relating to others, we can then expand the concept to how empathy affects societies and groups, and then look for those group patterns. We should see patterns in humans along well recognized scales of 5, 15, 40, 150, and 1500 individuals, and that would be a strong indicator of something we would have to call empathy.

It's actually surprisingly difficult to identify empathy unless you already have an intuitive sense of what it is and understand the being. Its too easy for individuals to fake empathy if you don't have a good enough connection. For example, it can be really difficult for us to determine if the empathy of politicians is genuine or an illusion. The cynics would argue it's always an illusion, but it's hard to tell.

You and I "feel" empathy because we're already bound together in how we view the world. To scientifically measure empathy from an alien perspective, we're going to have to be a bit more specific about it.

Arne Naess is a 20th century philosopher who came up with a concept called the "Ecological Self." He was looking at different definitions of self ("My body is my self" "my mind is my self" "my body and mind is my self", etc), and found great problems with all of them. The one he settled on "The Ecological Self is that with which the self relates to."

In his essays, he gave a story of a scientists who was looking through a microscope into a petri dish. A fly buzzing around the room landed in the dish. The dish itself contained a rather strong acid, rapidly deteriorating the fly's wings so that even if it escaped, it would not survive. But it takes time to be dissolved by acid. The scientist could do nothing but watch as the fly painfully disassociated into tiny molecules and integrated into the liquid of the dish. In those moments, Naess argued the scientist's Ecological Self extended to the fly. He had some sense of relating to what the fly was going through. Of course the scientist had never been dissolved in acid, but he had been splashed with it and burned by it, so there was something with which he related to the fly.

Naess then went on to argue that much of altruism could be explained by selfishness from such a wide concept of self. He argued that Mother Theresa was the most selfish person ever. However, her Self was so wide and all encompassing that acting in her self-interest meant supporting the countless people whom she helped during her life. Her Ecological Self encompassed more people than most of us can even imagine.

I use this philosophical example because it provides a larger more abstract structure the aliens can look for. They can look for evidence of this Ecological Self. If they find that the Ecological Self of any individual extends beyond their trivial body, then they have found empathy.

Thus, the best way to scientifically search for empathy is to put people together into groups and observe whether they exhibit these sorts of behaviors. This, of course, will require trying to categorize human behaviors into simple egocentric behaviors and wider behaviors founded in the Ecological Self.

Measuring this is excruciatingly difficult, which is why we don't have any scientific tests for politicians. However, one fascinating possibility stems from the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT). IIT quantifies the gestalt effects which come from bringing processing units together. It studies how much information is contained in the individual units (neurons in the usual IIT case, but test-subjects in this alien case), versus how much information is contained in groups of them. If there's no integration, no larger selves to be had, then a collection contains no more information than the individual units. Put a bunch of CDs together, and they contain little more information than the stamped contents of the individual CDs themselves. Really the only information stored beyond that is a few bits of information stored in the order you stack the CDs. However, put humans together, and they tend to form groups and societies which contain far more information in their structure than in the individual bodies themselves!

A key to using this theory here is that information has a tendency to decay over time unless something is preserving it. If there's a lot of information stored in the collection, it will tend to decay unless it's providing some value to the individual units.

So with this, we can divide up our sample of half a million people into small lots and see if they form structures with measurable information stored in their interactions. You can start with large or small scale samples, but I'd probably start with small because I have a limited population of test subjects to work with.

As it turns out, our aliens will notice really interesting results occurring at some regular intervals. They'll find similarities between groups of 3 4 and 5. Likewise, they'll find patterns in the 5-15 region which are different from the 3-5 region. Another region is 15-40. Then 40-150. 150-500 is a bit fuzzy, then there's 500-1500. 1500 on takes on a very different nature. These numbers have been found by anthropologists in virtually all cultures. If I may gloss them:

  • 3-5 people is your close knit group. These are the people you will let you see at your worst, or at your most vulnerable. These are the people you rely upon when everything else has gone wrong. In most militaries, 3-5 people form a fireteam, lead by a corporal.
  • 5-15 is your wider friend circle. These are the people you rely on directly on a day to day basis. In hunter-gather societies, these are the sizes of hunting parties in many parts of the world. In most militaries, 12 people form a squad, lead by a corporal or a sergeant.
  • 15-40 people is a tricky group to give a single word for. This is smaller than a tribe, but is a close knit group with a lot of tribal elements to it. The hunting party of 15 people will come back to the great group of 40. Here you will have true "leaders" in the sens of them making decisions which everyone else has to follow. In most militaries, 30-50 people will form a platoon, lead by a lieutenant, which is the first officer we've seen in this hierarchy of military organizations.
  • 4-150 is a tribe. This is the size where we see real tribal allegiance. Many companies target 150 as the size of a department or center. The upper end of this is a number called "Dunbar's number," as the size of a tribe, though he actually gave it as a range rather than a single number. IDEO, made famous by documentaries in the '90s, would build a new building when they hit 150 people rather than go larger within a building. 80-250 people is a company in the military, lead by a captain or a major.
  • 150-500 is a tough region that's been nicknamed the "megatribe." In anthropology, we find this when tribes form alliances. These are the extended tribe. In the military, these are battalions, lead by a Lt. colonel.
  • 500-1500 is a fun region to explore. It is currently believed that 1500 is the maximum number of faces we can pair to identities. If you have a society larger than that, you become forced to have people who you do not identify by their identity. You have to identify them by classes or roles, such as "serf" or "plumber" or "teacher." Larger than that, you see written down hierarchies dominate, as our brains can't handle the size of the structures without writing.

I point all of these out because they seem to be very universal, so the aliens would almost certainly notice those structures. They just seem to form when humans are involved, so any reasonable scientific experimentation will eventually find them. From an IIT perspective, this would be sufficient to argue that there's something somewhat-empathic going on. If you stressed one human in a way specific to its individual self, you could watch how the group responds to reach out and help that individual.

It would be very hard to explain the patterns we see by simple rules, as opposed to ants which have very clear hard-coded social structures built into their DNA to handle the 4 thousand to 4 million ant populations. Ours would be more fluid and adapting. The groups always seem to form, though the actual social structures they create vary depending on the circumstances. This could be tested easily by dividing out groups and seeing how they interact before bringing them back into the fold (three cheers for nondestructive testing!) To turn this one around on you, you might ask yourself whether you would consider ants to be empathic in any way at all. There's something to their structure that suggests there's more than meets the eye!

Now that would be the scientific way. The other more intuitive way would be to introduce yourself into the system. You, as an alien, try to extend your Ecological Self to include the humans. Then you see whether this self is returned or not. This, of course, may introduce empathy into the humans where it did not exist before. Depending on your goals, this may be a good thing or a bad thing. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama series explored this.

Of course, if your alien species has no empathy, this will not work. Then the question will be "what do they think they're looking for?" Is this a cold calculating study before planning an invasion? If so, then the pure scientific approach is best. On the other hand, if they're looking for something they lost, they might try integrating themselves into this human society. Perhaps they can learn empathy from us!

Scientists have performed a similar test on rats to test for altruism, which is closely related to empathy, and the same under some definitions.

The experiment involved two rats, one of which was in a small cage in the middle of the enclosure while the other was free to roam. Approximately 70% of rats chose to free the trapped one, even when it meant sharing the supply of treats in the room.

The aliens could easily set up the same or similar experiments with pairs or small groups of the human captives to observe the results.

Another method could simply be observation - place the humans on a planet somewhere with a little food and supplies and see how they interact and perform when setting up their own small civilisation.

How are we so sure the aliens even comprehend empathy? Would the aliens even have a sense of "self"?

They could be insectoid .. spider, ant or bee-like megamonsters who only have some kind of hive-mind but each creature cannot feel anything in particular at all but just acts on insectoid insticts. Actually this is a quite popular type of alien in sci fi.

I think it is a better question how we humans can test the aliens for these qualities. Because at least humans know what empathy is.

  • I would say we are so sure because the question has it in the premise, tbh? We can certainly conceive of alien species which wouldn't understand empathy, but the question presupposes one which does, and is trying to figure out if humans have it as well. – QWriter Nov 12 at 20:34

Aliens want to test humanity for empathy.

They stage a crash landing of one of their spacecraft near a small town in New Mexico, to see if the local humans will offer assistance to the crew.

Humanity leans about the names "Roswell" and "Area 51".

Aliens learn that humanity doesn't really have much in the way of empathy and have left us well alone ever since.

  • ha ha ha, +1 for casting Roswell as an empathy experiment. – anon Nov 13 at 11:58

The aliens could set up a scenario similar to this:

Create a huge pool of water. Place one group of humans on one side of the water. Place another group of humans on the other side. Now the aliens would arrange the living conditions on both sides of the water in a way that one side is very hostile and dangerous, a place you wouldnt want your children to grow up in, and the other one to be a flourishing society. Finally the aliens would put some boats on the "bad" side.

As a result of this setup humans from the group in "bad" living conditions would try to cross the body of water on their boats. However the aliens would have prepared the boats in a way that they would not be fit to make the trip and sink en-route.

Now the aliens could observe the reactions of the other group. Different strategies might surface: Some might do it like the rats mentioned in another example and try to save the drowning ones. Others might choose to ignore it. Some might build up barbed walls on their shores to keep even the good swimmers from entering their land. And few might even search for ways to make the "bad" land more liveable.

It seems like a pretty reliable empathy test. Luckily noone would do such a thing.

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    Everyone seems to want to save their family--I guess it's easy to have "Empathy" for someone you are close to/similar to (if you even want to call it empathy, at some point isn't it just vanity to only empathize with people just like you?). To test for actual empathy you should make your "Bad" people have some meaningless difference--like hair length or, hey how about skin color? – Bill K Nov 13 at 22:17

perhaps in the same way we tested for empathy in elephants and dolphins? expose some members of a group of humans to certain stimuli such as pain and view how they react. if the other humans appear to be attempting to comfort the other members of their group it would be a good indicator of empathetic tendencies existing in humans

  • This does not seem to add anything to the other answers where this is already suggested. Please do not repeat answers. – Jan Doggen Nov 12 at 15:13
  • my apologies. i'm new. i'll try not to do this again – Jack McCann Nov 12 at 15:17
  1. Isolate them, but need all their needs
  2. After a period of time give them a companion (either of the same species, or something that's non-threatening to them that they can socialize with)
  3. Threaten or treat their companion badly and observe their reaction

If empathy is: the ability to understand the feelings of others,

then we need a test that can't be passed by someone who doesn't understand the feelings of others.

Here is a short list of things that can be learned through training, repetition, conditioning, etc. that are obvious contenders for empathy but actually don't fit the bill.

  1. Saving people that are in danger.

  2. Comforting someone who is visibly crying / screaming / hyperventilating.

  3. Performing really any action in response to an obvious stimuli.

These do not necessarily indicate any understanding of another's emotions. Such responses can be learned or programmed. For example a robot can be programmed to respond to a sound frequency that approximates crying, with ice cream and words of affirmation. Does the robot understand what sadness is and how the other person feels, or what its actions are doing? If this is the only code in the robot, then no it wouldn't understand emotion. Action and response.

In the same way a dog can be trained that when a person wearing a mask (so emotions cant be seen) stamps their foot, then the dog should sit on their lap and lick them. What is a way to make this happen with out any emotional understanding? Just consistently rewarded the dog with a treat afterwards.

I hope I am beginning to show that actions that might seem like they indicate empathy, don't always have to.

So since we are an advanced alien race, I presume that we want to know if humans are capable of empathy with a high scientific degree of certainty. I propose that we test human's ability to conceive the emotions of others.

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

This is the emphasis of my answer (and in my opinion the core component of empathy).

A test to prove this can take any form, but there are some key points we should hit.

  1. We should establish a baseline. How does the subject being tested react to certain situations, and how do they feel about things. We want to make sure the subject is not just saying how they would react in every situation.

  2. We give the subject a hypothetical test using the same situations as step 1, but with regard to different people. We want to make sure to use examples of people that are known to react differently to the subject. Provide appropriate background information for each person the subject is empathizing with, provide a situation and ask the subject how the person would react. How do they feel. What are some of their likely future actions. For example:

    "Person A goes to law school and dedicates her life to it for 4 years excelling at it the whole time. She is then expelled for failing one class. She has never failed a class before. How does she feel? What are some likely future actions?".

  3. We see if the subject can identify the emotions of others with some degree of accuracy (maybe 50% of answers are right, or something like that).

Now obviously there are some caveats. For example not all humans experience empathy. We have plenty of psychopaths and they are markedly known for an absence of empathy. We may also want to weigh different parts of the test differently. For example when predicting the actions of others in response to an emotion is difficult, so we may be satisfied with any plausible action.

However the key point of this test is that the subject should have to mentally walk through what others would do, to clearly rule out other explanations of seemingly-empathetic behaviors.

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    At your opening assertion, you don't need empathy to understand it exists for instance there are plenty of serial killers who lacked any notion of empathy and actively exploited it in others. This is a defining trait for sociopaths. For aliens, they may not know what empathy is but they can observe that their are common human behaviors that result in a common reaction beyond their understanding. – anon Nov 13 at 19:57
  • Never mind that wasn't your assertion – anon Nov 13 at 20:01

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