Animals Have Emotions, But What About ‘Theory Of Mind’?

Scientific thinking about animals’ cognitive processes has been stifled since the turn of last century.

We have come a long way since the Descartian view that animals are mindless machines or the Pavlovian or Skinnerian assessments that animals simply react to their environment reflexively and/or behave only in response to positive or negative reinforcement. 

Scientific thinking about animals’ cognitive processes has been stifled since the turn of last century by the likes of C. Lloyd Morgan’s famous canon which states that, "In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.”
According to this canon, anyone who ascribed an underlying emotion to an animal’s behavior was simply being anthropomorphic, projecting human feelings onto what were merely "dumb animals.” 

The extreme behaviorist’s view that animals’ behavior is to be observed and measured but not interpreted prevailed through much of the last century. Even ethologists, who studied the behavior of animals in the wild, did so more by observation and note-taking than by trying to ascribe behaviors to internal motivation or thought processes.

To do so at the time would have been heresy. 

A Different Approach

The ethologists came up with terms like sign stimuli, releasers, fixed action patterns, and other reflexive instinctual explanations for what they were observing.  I’m not saying that all their observations were wrong or that they don’t apply—just that they didn’t go far enough.

It took a different approach, living among animals, as Jane Goodall did with chimpanzees, to realize the full richness of these animals’ interpersonal relationships and emotional intelligence.
Goodall put to rest the old theory that the main difference between humans and animals was that we had opposable thumbs and were the only species capable of tool use. The chimps she lived among and studied in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania demonstrated capable use of tools to fish termites out of their mounds, smash fruit and hard shells, and even make sponges out of leaves so that they could drink from them.

All Talk

Animals’ lack of language skills was considered another differentiator between animals and people but, over the years, parrots, dogs and great apes, among other species, have been shown to be capable of understanding a plethora of words and phrases. 

Certainly the human modification of the FoxP2 gene gives us the edge in terms of spoken language, but animals more than make up for that difference in their ability to interpret body language.

These days there are very few people who would deny that animals have intelligence and experience emotions.  This fact is accepted by pretty much everyone up to and including pundits like Marion Dawkins at Oxford University, Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University, and scholars in the Comparative Psychology Department of Harvard University. 

The fact that animals have primary emotions—and intelligence—is no longer the subject of debate. Primary emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and love are not in contention.

What Are You Thinking?

The stumbling block now, in terms of recognizing animals in their full intellectual capacity, is whether they are capable of secondary emotions, because secondary emotions (which develop from primary emotions) require greater cognitive ability and acceptance that animals have "theory of mind.” Theory of mind implies self-awareness and the ability to understand that other individuals may possess information and agendas that are different from one’s own.

Evidence is slowly building that animals do have theory of mind and are able to experience secondary emotions, though this still remains a controversial area. 

Theory of mind was inadvertently demonstrated by Dr. Brian Hare when he showed that dogs could look at him, understand that he had some information about where food was hidden and go to that hidden food source when he pointed toward it. This triangulation of thought [from dog to Dr. Hare to the food source] implies that the dog understands that another party, in this case Dr. Hare, knows something that they don’t know and that they can gain from the other party’s knowledge if they pay attention.

In the same vein, but on a more anthropomorphic note, I think most dog owners (and even some scientists!) would agree that dogs pick up on peoples’ emotions, sometimes comfort them when they’re sad, may be intimidated by them when they are hostile, and seem to be able to tell when people are frightened of them.
If one accepts that theory of mind does exist in animals, secondary emotions are eminently feasible.

One study about dogs displaying jealousy was published from the University of Portsmouth in England. That study concluded that dogs can indeed display jealousy by, for example, pushing between owners when they hug.

Feeling Guilty?

Guilt is another secondary emotion. Although a recent study by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz refuted that dogs could feel guilt, the results of that experiment do not tell the whole story. The experiment showed only that dogs respond to their owner’s frame of mind: If the owner thinks the dog has done something wrong and their body language projects disappointment or frustration, the dog will react in a submissive way. I know my dog acts guilty when he has emptied the trash can in by absence, even when I’m not around to transmit my displeasure.

Most days I come home and he is there to greet me with a wagging tail, but if he is not there I know, sure as clockwork, that I will find an empty trash can somewhere in the house. By the way, I have never punished him for this behavior but it is possible that his previous owner did. 

My point is he doesn’t need to see my face to skulk away and act guilty.

Other secondary emotions that are difficult to deny dogs possessing would be affection, cheerfulness, contentment, irritability, suffering, sadness, nervousness and anxiety. There are even drugs out there approved by the FDA for the treatment of separation anxiety and that dogs can display anxiety condition is accepted by all my behaviorist colleagues and most veterinarians.

Yet, there is still a contingent out there who refuses to accept the possibility of secondary emotions in animals because, as they would say, "you cannot access a dog’s internal thought processes.” 

I say if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. 

A Yawn

One recent very interesting study published in PLOS described the contagious effect of humans yawning on their dog’s yawning. As the authors state, "Contagious yawning has been shown to correlate with the level of social attachment in several primate species.” The results of this well-conducted study demonstrated that dogs yawn more frequently when watching their owner yawn than watching an unfamiliar person yawn, indicating dogs’ emotional proximity with their owners.

The bottom line was that this finding indicates that rudimentary forms of empathy may be present in domestic dogs. This implies that dogs are self-aware and aware of the feelings of others, and therefore have theory of mind.

One of the other ways that scientists have tried to determine self-awareness has been the mirror test of self-recognition.

Various species of primates, some avian species and dolphins have been demonstrated to recognize themselves in mirrors but this has yet to be demonstrated in dogs or cats. It may be that the latter two species are incapable of such self-recognition. The reason may be that they are not a primarily visual species but rely more on olfaction to investigate the world around them.

To explore this possibility in dogs, Dr. Marc Bekoff at Colorado State University conducted an experiment that he called "yellow snow.” In this experiment he allowed dogs to investigate urine deposits that he had laid out for them along a snowy trail, leaving a series of yellow marks. 

He found that dogs spent much less time investigating their own urine than the urine of other dogs.  His conclusion was that dogs recognized themselves through sense of smell. However they recognize themselves, it implies self-awareness.

Anyway, from Descartes to the present day there has been a growing trend of appreciation for animals’ intelligence, emotions and self-awareness. With every passing year the cognitive gap that supposedly differentiates us from mere animals is shrinking.

I’m not saying that animals will ever re-invent the wheel, but they are good at what they do.

We humans do have very large frontal lobes to help us navigate the world around us but the difference between us and animals is more quantitative than qualitative. They have elements of every talent that we have and some excel at some things that we find difficult–to-impossible, like the ability to make detailed mental maps, appreciate the earth’s magnetic field, or the polarization of light.

When you think about it, the relative sameness is not surprising considering that we are all variations on the same underlying theme.

As scientists, most of us acknowledge that we all evolved from a common mammalian ancestor and possess elements of the same cognitive skills. Intelligence and emotions did not arise for the first and only time in the human race, it evolved. 

We may be better endowed than other species, but we are certainly not that unique. 

An author and researcher, Dr. Dodman is a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and is founder of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic.


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