While cognitive empathy for others appears to be a socially rational response to the perceptions of others, De Waal argues that monkeys learn the capacity for understanding through an “emotional contagion.” Cognitive empathy enables individuals to become “curious about their internal state,” wanting to “search for clues about the others' feelings.” De Waal argues this is different from the “caring responses” displayed by other animals like elephants, dolphins, and lemurs which assist each other. While those animals appear to act out of necessity for cooperation with each other, apes and humans which are not necessarily directly dependent upon each other have a unique capacity for “higher levels of empathy” that drives their behavior(70).
Even with this unique ability to empathize with the feelings of others through the emotional contagion, De Waal questions whether this awareness of others translates to sincere feelings of selfless sympathy. He identifies imitation as an example where making “moral judgment” based on “perceived intentions” becomes difficult given that it initially occurs as a “mere behavioral copying without realization of the benefit” (72).
Unfortunately, this “awareness of how one's actions come across and what the outside world is likely to read into them” leads apes to learn methods of intentional deception (75). De Waal observes that chimpanzees will often change facial expressions, pretend to be occupied, or even “act totally blind and deaf” when concerned about how their actions will be perceived by others.
Even when apes act with good intentions, the emotional contagion can make the distinction between sympathy and empathy difficult to discern. Understanding an individual's pain for how it effects them can lead an individual to make the rational decision to alleviate that pain. Empathy, leads an individual to feel the pains of another for themselves, risking simply becoming satisfied from being able to acknowledge the pain. These “innate responses” to the feelings of others range in results from simple apathy towards the feelings of another to extremes like Schadenfreude, where individuals actually take pleasure in the pain of others.
The questions of the possibility for cognitive empathy clearly has larger complications when applied to social interactions among humans instead of apes. Can a reconciliation between self interest and group interest successfully occur when such high levels of distrust exist? Does the cognitive empathy effectively encourage good behavior that actually results in a fair relationship or does our needs inevitably define our treatment of others? Can the needs of another be assisted in a way that is selfless? How can we understand others in a way that treats others as partners rather than as mechanisms for our needs? Is it possible for individuals relate to one another without making their understanding about themselves instead of those whom they think they relate with?