Emotions help animals to make choices

Aug 03, 2010
Happy? Angry? Anxious? How can we measure animal emotions? Credit: Oliver Burman

To understand how animals experience the world and how they should be treated, people need to better understand their emotional lives. A new review of animal emotion suggests that, as in humans, emotions may tell animals about how dangerous or opportunity-laden their world is, and guide the choices that they make.

The review by Bristol University's Professor Mike Mendl and Dr Liz Paul and Lincoln University's Dr Oliver Burman, is published online in the .

An animal living in a world where it is regularly threatened by predators will develop a negative emotion or 'mood', such as anxiety, whereas one in an environment with plenty of opportunities to acquire resources for survival will be in a more positive .

The researchers argue that these emotional states not only reflect the animal's experiences, they also help it decide how to make choices, especially in ambiguous situations, which could have good or bad outcomes. An animal in a negative state will benefit from adopting a safety-first, 'pessimistic' response to an ambiguous event -- for example interpreting a rustle in the grass as signalling a predator - while an animal in a positive state will benefit from a more 'optimistic' response, interpreting it as signalling prey.

Professor Mike Mendl, Head of the Animal Welfare and Behaviour research group at Bristol University's School of Clinical Veterinary Science, said: "Because we can measure animal choices objectively, we can use 'optimistic' and 'pessimistic' decision-making as an indicator of the animal's which itself is much more difficult to assess. Recent studies by our group and others suggest that this may be a valuable new approach in a variety of .

"Public interest in animal welfare remains high, with widespread implications for the way in which are treated, used and included in society. We believe our approach could help us to better understand and assess an animal's emotion."

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More information: 'An integrative and functional framework for the study of animal emotion and mood', Michael Mendl, Oliver H. P. Burman and Elizabeth S. Paul, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published online ahead of print August 4, 2010.

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User comments : 5

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5 / 5 (1) Aug 04, 2010
Uhhm, those animals have a neural network up there, did you expect any other behaviour?
5 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2010
One just needs to see a dog greet its owner to understand how developed animal emotions can become.
not rated yet Aug 04, 2010
I continue to bristle with acute disbelief that some cognitive scientists continue to claim that animals don't have "real" emotions -- they just "look" like they do.
not rated yet Aug 04, 2010
I could easily prove that any 'thing' that can predict the future (like: anticipate actions) has emotions.
not rated yet Aug 13, 2010
This distresses me. My dog will jump and flinch at any little moving thing (or perceived) and will back off in fear. If this means he is in a negative state, then I want to do what it takes for him to be in a positive state. IN any other situation he seems happy and content. Although, I do know that I need to do more to make him aware that I am the pack leader. I know that when I do that, that should give him peace of mind. I am enrolling him in training (or I should say I enrolled myself)so that I can more effectively be the leader he needs me to be. When I introduced him to the trainer, she told me that many feel that Beagles are impossible to train to obey because he is a hound and his instincts are strong. But she feels it is challenging but can be done at least to a degree.

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