It really is absurd to think that animals don’t have feelings!
Many thousands of animal owners will intuitively know that animals have feelings. Not only expressed through their behaviour but also through many other subtle signs including facial expressions. But what about the science behind this?
Back towards the end of May, there was an item on the BBC News website that was headlined: Ape tantrums: Chimps and bonobos emotional about choice. It caught my eye.
Ape tantrums: Chimps and bonobos emotional about choice
Like many humans, chimpanzees and bonobos react quite emotionally when they take risks that fail to pay off.
This is according to researchers from Duke University in the US, who developed decision-making games that the apes played to earn edible treats.
Some animals that lost the game – receiving a bland piece of cucumber rather than a preferred piece of banana – reacted with what looked like the ape equivalent of a tantrum.
The findings are published in Plos One.
Chimpanzees and Bonobos Exhibit Emotional Responses to Decision Outcomes
The interface between cognition, emotion, and motivation is thought to be of central importance in understanding complex cognitive functions such as decision-making and executive control in humans. Although nonhuman apes have complex repertoires of emotional expression, little is known about the role of affective processes in ape decision-making. To illuminate the evolutionary origins of human-like patterns of choice, we investigated decision-making in humans’ closest phylogenetic relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus). In two studies, we examined these species’ temporal and risk preferences, and assessed whether apes show emotional and motivational responses in decision-making contexts. We find that (1) chimpanzees are more patient and more risk-prone than are bonobos, (2) both species exhibit affective and motivational responses following the outcomes of their decisions, and (3) some emotional and motivational responses map onto species-level and individual-differences in decision-making. These results indicate that apes do exhibit emotional responses to decision-making, like humans. We explore the hypothesis that affective and motivational biases may underlie the psychological mechanisms supporting value-based preferences in these species.
Wonderfully, just a short time later I found on Psychology Today an article about the emotions felt by dogs. It was written by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., who is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. (As an aside, a quick search revealed that Prof. Coren was mentioned in a blog post back in October, 2011 in this place: The power of joy.)
So imagine my pleasure and delight at receiving written permission from the Professor to republish his article in full. So without further ado, here it is.
Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?
Dogs have the same emotions as a human 2 year-old child.
Since most of us routinely read emotions in our dogs (wagging tail means happy, cringing means afraid and so forth) it may be difficult to believe that the existence of real emotions in dogs was, and in some places still is, a point of scientific controversy. In the distant past it was presumed that dogs had very rich mental lives with feelings much like those of humans. However with the rise of science things began to change. We learned enough about the principles of physics and mechanics, so that we could build complex machines, and began to notice that living things (both people and animals) were also based upon by systems governed by mechanical rules and chemical processes. In the face of such discoveries, religions stepped in to suggest that there must be more to human beings than simply mechanical and chemical events. Church scholars insisted that people have souls, and the evidence they gave for this was the fact that humans have consciousness and feelings. Animals might have the same mechanical systems, but they did not have a divine spark, and therefore they do not have the ability to experience true feelings.
Since most research at the time was church sponsored it is not surprising that prominent scholars, such as the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes adopted this viewpoint. In a highly influential set of analyses, Descartes suggested that animals like dogs were simply some kind of machine. He would thus describe my Beagle, Darby, as simply being a dog-shaped chassis, filled with the biological equivalent of gears and pulleys. Although this machine doesn’t have consciousness and emotions it can still be programmed to do certain things.
In recent times science has progressed a long way beyond Descartes and we now understand that dogs have all of the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. Dogs also have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin, which, in humans, is involved with feeling love and affection for others. With the same neurology and chemistry that people have, it seems reasonable to suggest that dogs also have emotions that are similar to ours. However it is important to not go overboard and immediately assume that the emotional ranges of dogs and humans are the same.
To understand what dogs feel we must turn to research which was done to explore the emotions of humans. Not all people have the full range of all possible emotions. In fact at some points in your life you did not have the full complement of emotions that you feel and express today. Research shows that infants and very young children have a more limited range of emotions, but over time the child’s emotions begin to differentiate and they come to be able to experience different and more complex emotional states.
This data is important to our understanding of the emotional lives of dogs because researchers have come to believe that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This conclusion holds for most mental abilities — including emotions. Thus we can look to the human research to see what we might expect of our dogs. Like a young child, dogs will clearly have emotions, but many fewer kinds of emotions than we find in adults.
I’ve illustrated this in the accompanying illustration. At birth a human infant only has an emotion that we might call excitement. This indicates how aroused he is, ranging from very calm up to a state of frenzy. Within the first weeks of life the excitement state comes to take on a positive or a negative flavor, so we can now detect the general emotions of contentment and distress. In the next couple of months disgust, fear, and anger, become detectable in the infant. Joy often does not appear until the infant is nearly six months of age and it is followed by the emergence of shyness or suspicion. True affection (the sort that it makes sense to use the label “love” for) does not fully emerge until nine or ten months of age.
The complex social emotions, those which have elements that must be learned, don’t appear until late. Shame and pride take more than three years to appear, while guilt appears around six months after these. A child must be nearly four years of age before it feels contempt.
This developmental sequence is the golden key to understanding the emotions of dogs. Dogs go through their developmental stages much more quickly than humans do, and have all of the emotional range that they will ever achieve by the time they are four to six months of age (depending on the rate of maturing in their breed). However, we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love. However based on current research it seems likely that your dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame.
Now many people might argue that they have seen evidence which indicates that their dog is capable of experiencing guilt. The usual situation is where you come home and your dog starts slinking around and showing discomfort, and you then find that he or she has left a smelly brown deposit on your kitchen floor. It is natural to conclude that the dog was acting in a way that shows that it is feeling guilty about its transgression. However this is not guilt, but simply the more basic emotion of fear. The dog has learned that when you appear and his droppings are visible on the floor, bad things happen to him. What you see is his fear of punishment—he will never feel guilt.
So what does this mean for those of us who live with, and interact with dogs? The good news is that you can feel free to dress your dog in that silly costume for a party. He will not feel shame, regardless how ridiculous he looks. He will also not feel pride at winning a prize at a dog show or an obedience competition. However your dog can still feel love for you, and contentment when you are around, and aren’t these the emotions we truly value?
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission
NB: Do make a bookmark of Canine Corner.
So going to return to that BBC News item. I broke off after that reference to the findings being published in Plos One. This is how the BBC item continued:
The researchers worked with 23 chimps and 15 bonobos in two ape sanctuaries in the Republic of Congo.
“The animals were all [rescued] orphans of the bushmeat trade,” explained lead researcher Alexandra Rosati, now at Yale University.
“They’re sort of in semi-captivity, but it’s possible to play games with them.
“It’s as close as we can come to wild animals without actually being in the wild.”
Dr Rosati, who studies problem-solving in apes in order to examine the origins of human behaviour, designed two games.
In the first, the animals could choose between receiving a relatively small food reward immediately, or receiving a larger reward but having to wait for it.
The second game involved choosing between a “safe” and a “risky” option. The safe option was six peanuts hidden under a bowl. But a second bowl concealed either a slice of cucumber or a highly favoured portion of banana.
Many of the apes – both bonobos and chimps – became emotional when they had to wait or took a gamble that did not pay off.
The researchers recorded some very tantrum-like responses: vocalisations including “pout moans” and “screams”, as well as anxious scratching and banging on the bars of the enclosure.
“Some of the reactions look similar to a kid [shouting] ‘no, I wanted it!’,” said Dr Rosati.
The results, Dr Rosati explained, suggest that the emotional component of decision-making – feelings of frustration and regret that are so fundamental to our own decisions – are intrinsic to ape society and are not uniquely human.
The researchers also found differences in the way the two species responded to the games; chimps were more willing to take risks, and also more patient than bonobos.
This could suggest that the apes’ capacity for emotion may have helped shape the way they live.
“These differences might be reflected in differences in how the apes choose to forage in the wild,” said Dr Rosati.
“This might be why chimpanzees are more likely to engage in risky strategies like hunting, in that you could spend all day pursuing a monkey, but end up with nothing.
Overall, she said that the results suggested that decision-making in apes involved moods and motivations similar to our own.
OK, better let the dogs outside now – I’m on the receiving end of that look!