Episode 99: Animal Emotions – Does Your Pet Really Have Feelings?

Does your dog have thoughts and feelings? How about your cat? In this episode we find out what scientists have to say about how we should study this question. I also review a fascinating new study by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College who studied whether or not dogs who have that guilty look actually do feel guilty. We take a look at the idea of anthropomorphism and your dog in this episode of The Psych Files.


Resources on Anthropomorphism and Animal Emotions

  • The research I reviewed in this episode is entitled, "Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour" in Behavioural Processes, Volume 81, Issue 3, July 2009, Pages 447-452 by Alexandra Horowitz.
  • Here’s where you can find more information about Dr. Horowtiz and her Dog Cognition Lab can be found here.
  • Here’s a link to the article entitled "It’s an Owner’s Scolding That Makes a ‘Guilty’ Dog" that appeared in the New York Times
  • Science Daily also wrote an article reviewing Dr. Horowitz’ research on the Guilty Dog look entitled "What Really Prompts The Dog’s ‘Guilty Look‘"
  • What are Animals? Why Anthropomorphism is Still Not a Scientific Approach to Behavior, Clive D. L. Wynne, Comparative Cognition and Behavior, 2007, vol 2, pp 125-135.
  • Critical Anthropomorphism, Uncritical Anthropocentrism, and Naïve Nominalism, Gordon M. Burghardt, Comparative Cognition and Behavior, 2007, vol 2, pp 136-138.


Comments

  1. Roman says

    Anthropomorphism, I don’t think those experiments prove anything about it. I do think that the described experiments with dogs are interesting and maybe they even suggest that a dog does not actually feel guilty, but no more than a human. How old were the dogs? Do the same tests with a three year old human child and I’m pretty sure it will not feel guilty either. I think the whole issue of guilt and all the other emotions is strongly tied to social feedback and is partially learned behavior. I have observed human children displaying strong emotions in such a way that I have the impression that sometimes it’s real, though overly dramatic, and sometimes it’s just plain faked.

    And, let’s not forget the idea of sociopaths. There are supposedly humans who are not capable of guilt, yet probably most of them act fairly “normal” most of the time because they do what’s expected. My point is that I have just as much reason to doubt human emotions as dog emotions. Thus, the argument about whether or not we are anthropomorphising our dog’s behaviors is rather mute. Trying to prove that they do not have the same emotions as us is fairly worthless. Though, I agree that we should be careful about the assumptions we make about what other animals (human or otherwise) are feeling.

  2. Michael says

    You’ve got some good points and the author did go out of her way (as much as you can in a published research article) to state that this study doesn’t prove that dogs don’t feel guilt or that other animals don’t have various emotions. It’s just that there is a behavioral component to the whole process (as you say, “partially learned behavior”). I think the author would agree with you.

  3. Nathan says

    Roman covered much of what I was thinking when I listened to this podcast. “Do dogs feel guilt” is a total strawman hypothesis. A three year old would not feel any guilt over breaking an ancient vase. The 3 year old has no conception of an ancient vase or why it’s destruction would be so unfortunate. Someone who is a non native speaker of English could unwittingly greet a stranger with an insult or swear word. Would she feel guilt at that moment? Of course not! She might only feel guilty after it was explained to her what her word meant. Why not test more fundamental emotions like loyalty, happiness, and sadness? The entire argument that animals do not have thoughts and feelings (even similar to ours) is to reject a Darwinian analysis of the human brain. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that dogs, cats, whales, have similar emotions as humans based on phylogeny? There is a huge body of evidence that animals have degrees of emotion (as we would define emotions–how else could the emotions be defined or related? We’re the ones doing the relating!). Look at the work of Frans De Waal for instance. I find this whole argument outdated.

  4. Cathy says

    I believe they do have emotions. I don’t think when you see a video of a mother cat running in, and out of a burning building to save her kittens is purely instinct. Even if it was instinct that does not exclude emotion.
    Scientists know that dopemine is a pleasure chemical in the brain. They believe that this chemical is proof that we experience emotion because it causes the emotion “pleasure”. Could there not be other chemicals related to emotion that could prove or disprove if animals have feelings? Do they know of these chemicals now, or do we not know enough about the brain yet? This seems like the obvious place to look for today’s modern scientific proof.
    I also think at least some proof could come from well researched animal behavior studies. Does anyone know where to find these?

  5. Michael says

    Cathy: good point about dopamine. I talk a bit about dopamine in episode 101 on music. I plan to interview the researcher for this study in a future episode, in part because she does a lot more research on animals (particularly dogs), so I’ll follow-up with her on this. I think she would agree with you that animals have emotions (as would I), it’s just that in some cases – like this one – their behavior can be explained in non-emotional ways. More to come.

  6. Kevin says

    I enjoyed this episode! I agree with the researcher in that this study did not point to their behavior proving that dogs (or at least these 14) feel guilt but I agree with her that it also does not rule out -or even severely damage the case for- the possibility of animals having feelings.

    I happen to believe that at the very least animals have some very basic emotions and that with good, consistent training they possibly will experience more complex emotions. I do not have a degree in Psychology and can’t say I’ve actively studied it for long but it seems to me that the process of child development is very much the same…

    A newborn cries and that tells us she is either sad, hungry, or in some other kind of discomfort; as this child grows she begins to be trained in social rules and consequences which lends itself to guilt and pride.

    Yes, this is a weak argument for the case of Pro-Anthropomorphism because I have to assume that dogs have the ability to develop similarly enough to a human child to process these more complex thoughts and emotions; however, the other argument, with little exception, doesn’t in my mind have a far better argument.

    My thought is: is not all emotion based on some sort of pavlovian response to conditioning? I’ll be trolling the Development section to see if I can find anything here at the psychfiles to help me better understand this and see if I’m onto the right idea.

    @Nathan – I’m sure I misunderstood, so I’m asking for qualification in the form of an observation: When we are presented ConditionA + ResultB = DataC, we cannot just conclude that DataC is faulty or weak because it conflicts with TheoryA. I’m pretty sure I misunderstood what you meant – maybe I need to go study Darwin’s Analysis of the Brain? – Any help you could provide on your meaning or where I need to go to understand would be appreciated!

    Well, looks like I wrote enough to make my own podcast script – sorry and goodnight. (I felt guilt =P)

  7. Ruth Eyrich says

    Most of my thoughts were already said.
    My question is: how can we be sure, that animaly don’t have any emotions, because it’s said, that we do anthropomorphism? Are we not doing the same with humans? We interpret their behaviour most of the time or how we would feel in a situation like this. The only difference is, we can ask the. But is the answer always right?
    We do the same with babys and our pets. We interpret their behaviour.
    I do think, that my cat is capable of at least basic emotions, even some complexe emotions like boredom or loneliness. :)

  8. Wei tong Wang says

    I think animals do have emotions, but maybe their emotions are not that we seem like. This article focuses the word “animal” on “dog” or “cat”. Actually, since they are organism, all animals have emotions.

    In this survey, they finally proved that a dog didn’t actually feel guilty, but just act what you want it to act. I think a dog’s emotion trait forms after it born, and the environment it lives in does a great influence on its emotion. As we all know, dogs won’t have a greater intelligence than human beings—they are just animals. And that most of them have a short period of life. When we raise a dog, we usually get it when it was young enough( maybe 1 or 2 years old). Even a human baby won’t feel guilty, how can you suppose a dog at that age feel guilty? As far as I am concerned, “guilty” is too serious an emotion for a dog to handle. To answer the question of the title, I want to say that pet really have feelings, but not guilty. Of course they will have feelings like happiness or sadness. Let’s think about a baby. He will cry when he wants milk or foods or make a pee. He will smile or laugh when he find something interesting. And I think a dog’s feeling is no more complex than that. The difference is just the way they represent it.

    I think if a pet has guilty feeling, it also has other advanced feelings like gratitude, jealousy, etc. But I think that’s impossible. Yes we do have many loyal dogs in the world that usually move us and made us cry. There are even many films telling about a loyal dog and its owner’s moving stories that reduce people to tears. Let me to explain that, I will give two possibilities. One is these are genius dogs that rare exist but really exists in the world. They are exceptions from what we are discussing. One is that the dogs are born with loyalty. They just don’t know what loyalty is, what they know is to follow their owners. It’s their natural instincts. And maybe it is because of phylogeny. I don’t know.
    I have a cat last year. I saw it beside a field full of rubbish and dust. It’s a little dirty black cat that has little power to run at that time. So I easily caught him. After that, I took him to an animal clinic, cure his disease, buy him food, and wash his body. The doctor said that I pulled this poor cat back from the hell. My Mum asked me to throw the cat several times because of the flea made from its body. But I rejected every time. I took him as my baby. I didn’t know what he was thinking. But I can definitely guess him feelings from the first time in my home. He was so scared the first time. He likes to stay where there is no light. He got into the bottom of the sofa to sleep so that none of us found him for a long time the next day. But after that, I could feel it was becoming more and more relaxed getting alone with my family. Also, he was sometimes naughty, and sometimes well-behaved just like a child—silently lying beside me when I’m watching TV. But I think all his behaviors and emotions just illustrate his getting used to the new environment and gradually depend on this environment. It’s fairly simple and it’s definitely not the feeling like human beings. Likewise, a dog’s guilty expression is just the signal that it has got used to the environment it lives in.

  9. says

    Thank you for the sagacious opinion. My brother and I were preparing to do some analysis about that. We got a great book on that matter from our local library and numerous books are less influensive as your site. I am pleased to retrieve such information which I have been searching for a long while. :)

  10. AJ Jack says

    Dogs are generally seen as more expressive than cats for a simple physical reasons. Dogs have muscles in their foreheads that give them a wide amount of movement in their eyebrows. Cats lack these muscles and so they have that expressionless (superior) look about them.
    This contributes to why I am not a cat person.

  11. Michael says

    Interesting AJ. I didn’t know that about cats, their lack of forehead muscles and how this contributes to their “superior” look. Although, as a cat owner (but really more of a “dog person”), I prefer to think of that expressionless cat look as “dignified” rather than superior :)

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