Source: University of Copenhagen
who do well on human empathy tests are also measurably better at
decoding the emotional sounds of animals, according to a new study from
the University of Copenhagen. Other aspects, such as age and work
related to animals, are also shown to play a crucial role.
you have a Jolly Jumper in the barn or have ever made bacon out of
Babe, chances are you’re better at hearing when an animal is having a
good or bad time than other people are. And, if you are between 20-29
years old and empathetic towards fellow humans, then your chances are
is demonstrated by new research from the Department of Biology,
conducted in a collaboration with Swiss institutions, ETH Zurich and
the big picture, the researchers were looking for traces of a so-called
common emotional system among mammals, but the research also has
specific applications related to animal welfare.
results show that based on its sounds we, humans, can determine whether
or not an animal is stressed (or excited), and whether it is expressing
positive or negative emotions. This applies across a number of
different mammals. We can also see that our ability to interpret the
sounds depends on several factors, such as age, close knowledge of
animals and, not least, how empathetic we are towards other people,”
says behavioural biologist Elodie Briefer from the Department of
marks the first time that so many different animal sounds were tested
on humans, both in terms of arousal (i.e. stress/excitement) and valence
(i.e. the charge of emotions positive vs negative).
people from 48 different countries participated in the study, which
included the vocalizations, or calls, of 6 mammals. The sounds of goats,
cattle, Asian wild horses (Przewalski’s horses), domesticated horses,
pigs and wild boars were played to participants along with the sounds of
human gibberish from actors.
Ability to interpret animal sounds varies
average, we humans, among animal species, can “guess” accurately more
often than if you rolled a single dice and got random bids, the results
show. For arousal, the correct answers amounted to 54.1% and for
valence, that figure was 55.3%.
were also asked to provide information about a range of factors
including their age, gender and level of education, just as they wrapped
up their participation with an empathy test, and the researchers
observed several interesting factors in relation to how well humans
understand animal sounds.
and foremost, the results are significantly better when participants
work with animals – even when the task is to listen to animals other
than the ones that they are immediately familiar with. Thus, the results
suggest that an intimate knowledge of animals generally promotes the
understanding of animals’ emotional lives.
is good news for animal welfare. For example, farmers who want to
ensure that their pigs are thriving are well-equipped to capture that,”
says Elodie Briefer.
plays a role as well. Here, the study data shows that the better scores
were found among the 20-29-year olds. On the other hand, the results
demonstrate that participants under the age of twenty are the worst
performers, and that the number of correct answers decreases with age.
Empathy for humans and animals is linked
Most surprising to the researchers was that their results showed a marked correlation between empathy for humans and animals.
was really surprising for me and very interesting that those who
performed well in a recognized test to assess people’s empathic level –
towards other people, mind you – were also significantly better at
understanding the emotional lives of animals,” says Elodie Briefer.
could have used other tests that measure how a person relates to
animals, but to make it simpler, we stuck to this particular empathy
test, which was translated and validated for the eight languages in the
study. It is a recognized test, but it measures empathy towards other
people. Nevertheless, we see a clear correlation with the ability to
interpret animal sounds,” she continues.
Animal welfare is all about emotions
animal welfare is defined by the emotional life of animals. Therefore,
new knowledge provided by this study is important for both basic and
applied research. On the one hand, it increases the understanding of
animal emotions, and it opens opportunities to improve that
understanding,” says Elodie Briefer.
to the researcher, the knowledge contributed by the study shows the
path to concrete ways to work on improving animal welfare through an
understanding of their emotional lives.
example, the development of an app where AI supports those who work
with animals offers promising perspectives. But it is also important to
note that there is nothing to prevent someone from beginning to improve
their own skills now if they interact with animals on a daily basis,”
Briefer points out.
students try the test in class, they obtain an average of 50 percent of
correct answers on the first try. After we talk about the sounds and
knowledge that we have about animal vocalizations, they improve. On
their second attempts, they typically get above 70% correct. It is
natural to explore this potential in future studies. I definitely think
that it’s possible to practice and improve this ability for the vast
majority of people,” says Elodie
Extra info: The evolution of emotions
researchers searched for traces of a common emotional system between
mammals, which may have been preserved throughout evolutionary history.
The study supports that thesis when it comes to recognizing arousal in
results show large variation in how good people are in discerning
whether the animals are experiencing positive or negative emotions,
there is much less difference in how humans distinguish between high and
low arousal among mammals.
to Elodie Briefer, this may be because we in the mammalian family share
common traits when it comes to how we express the intensity of our
emotions (i.e. arousal) – giving participants some innate ability to
interpret arousal, and making results less dependent on acquired
speaking, higher-frequency sounds (in addition to other features) are
often a sign of higher arousal, and lower-frequency sounds a sign of
lower. If a subject uses the same standard to interpret animal sounds
that he or she would use to understand a human, then it is often
correct. We express arousal more similarly than valence because it is
linked to stress pathways, which are evolutionarily well preserved in
mammals,” explains the researcher.
Facts: How researchers define animal emotions
Emotions are intense, short-term reactions triggered in response to certain internal or external stimuli.
They are characterized by a certain level of arousal (bodily activation) and valence (positive versus negative).
the study, test animals were recorded in situations of various arousal
and associated with positive or negative valence (e.g. expectation of
food / food frustration).
emotional valence was then verified using behavioral indicators
described in the research literature. Emotional arousal was assessed
based on the heart rates of domestic animals and on movement (a good
behavioural indicator of arousal) in wild species.
Facts: Who performed best in the test?
The researchers studied several demographic characteristics that could affect the ability to interpret the animals’ sounds.
+ Work with animals – The researchers observed a decisive factor in the group of test
subjects that interact with animals in their work – also when it comes
to other animals.
+ Age – The results show a clear difference. People under 20 perform worse,
20-29-year-olds are best in the test, and the ability to decode animal
sounds decreases steadily with age.
+ Empathy – The researchers were most surprised that good results in an empathy
test towards humans also yielded significantly better results with the
Parenthood – Neither was there a measurable difference between whether the subjects had children or not.
– Educational level (with or without a BA) did not make a noticeable difference.
+ Domestication – a final aspect that influenced the results was about the animals rather than the subjects. Domesticated pigs and horses were easier to decode for subjects than their wild relatives.
Facts: How the researchers did it
Before the test,
participants were asked to answer demographic questions – i.e., their
gender, age, level of educational and whether they had children. And
whether their work or studies were related to animals, and/or they had
species, which they were familiar with.
The test itself.
Participants were presented with several questions, each containing two
animal sounds from one particular animal, with either different arousal
(but same valence), or different valence (but same arousal). They then
had to guess if the sound was – high or low arousal / positive or
negative emotional charge (i.e. valence).
After the test, they were asked to complete a standard empathy test, which assigns scores in 4 dimensions of empathy towards people.
About this empathy and animal psychology research news
Author: Kristian Bjørn-Hansen
Source: University of Copenhagen
Contact: Kristian Bjørn-Hansen – University of Copenhagen
Image: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Open access.
“Age, empathy, familiarity, domestication and call features enhance human perception of animal emotion expressions” by Elodie Floriane Mandel-Briefer et al. Royal Society Open Science