Cognitive empathy has been identified among dogs, in a new study which helps further prove that a canine pet is indeed man’s best friend.
Cognitive empathy, also known as perspective taking, is the process through which it’s possible to detect and make sense of emotions and feelings displayed by others.
According to Kun Guo, at the University of Lincoln, this capacity of correctly perceiving emotional states and placing them in the right category, in order to react accordingly to them, had only been identified among certain primates.
Even more strikingly, human beings had been considered the only species where nearly every individual possesses this ability.
Now it appears that this belief may have to be re-evaluated, following research conducted by scientists at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the University of Lincoln, in the United Kingdom.
Their academic paper, presented in the journal Biology Letters on Wednesday, January 13, was based on an experiment involving 17 pet dogs.
During the animal study, each of the subjects was exposed to several sets of visual and auditory stimuli, suggesting either positive emotions (friendliness, playfulness, cheerfulness) or negative ones (frustration, anger, hostility).
More precisely, right in front of their eyes, there were 2 separate screens, showing various photos of other dogs and humans. One screen featured agreeable moods, while the other one depicted instances of aggression and belligerence.
Simultaneously, audio recordings were being played, including either sounds alluding to joyousness and contentment, or evoking unpleasantness or fury (such as threatening barks).
The canine participants had never done such a test before, and all the material that they had to see or hear had been completely new to them. This way, study authors were able to test each subject’s reactions with full accuracy and precision.
It was determined that dogs are much more astute when it comes to identifying and categorizing human emotions.
Namely, when hearing a certain sound, they were 67% more likely to look at its compatible visual cue, referring to the same type of feeling. In contrast, they were less predisposed to gaze at photographs illustrating completely opposite states of being.
The fact that dogs devoted much more of their attention to pairings referring to similar moods suggests that they were able to successfully place them in the same group.
On the other hand, given that they were much more likely to ignore incongruous combinations (one indicating wrath, and the other one indicating warmth), it may be that they actually dismissed them as inauthentic.
Based on the behavior exhibited by these pets, study authors have come to the conclusion that dogs can reliably correlate two types of sensory input, and therefore formulate faultless assessments of others’ emotions.
This way, they can adapt their behavior not just to other canines, but also to their human owners. What’s even more remarkable is that this isn’t just a mere process of association, or a reaction developed mechanically after being exposed numerous times to the same stimulus.
Instead, as emphasized by Daniel Mills, at the University of Lincoln, this is in fact an instance of active learning used by dogs in order to make more sense of the world around them, and to fare better when interacting with others.
The study may not come as a surprise to canine lovers, who sometimes swear by their pets’ ability to understand them and empathize with them, but it may astonish others, who had come to believe that humans are the only species capable of perceiving and processing emotions.
In fact, prior research has shown that dogs can even mimic each other’s facial expressions and body language, which suggests that they may also be equipped with emotional empathy.
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