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Emotion in animals considers the question of whether non-human animals feel emotions, in the sense that humans understand it.

Different answers have been suggested throughout human history, by animal lovers, scientists, philosophers, and others who interact with animals, but the core question has proven hard to answer since we can neither obtain spoken answers, nor assume anthropomorphism. As a result, on the one hand society recognizes animals can feel pain, by criminalizing animal cruelty, and yet on the other hand it is far from clear whether we truly believe animals "feel" in a meaningful sense. Often expressions of apparent pleasure are ambiguous as to whether this is emotion, or simply innate response, perhaps to approval or other hard-wired cues. The ambiguity is a source of much controversy in that there is no certainty which views, if any, are "right". That said, extreme behaviorists would also say that human "feeling" is a meaningless, hard-wired response to external stimuli.

In recent years, research has become available which suggests strongly animals have emotions as people do, albeit lacking certain cognitive insights. (citation needed) This matches recent advances that have revolutionized prior understandings of animal language, cognition and tool use, and even sexuality. Emotions arise in the mammalian brain, or the limbic system, which human beings share in common with other mammals as well as many other species. This presents both a scientific dilemma -- how can we tell? -- and a potential ethical one -- if true what does it mean?


Whilst different sections of humanity have had very different views on animal emotion, the examination of animals with a scientific, rather than anthropomorphic eye, has led to very cautious steps towards any form of recognition beyond the capacity for pain and fear, and such demonstrations as are needed and engendered, for survival. Historically, prior to the rise of sciences such as ethology, interpretation of animal behavior tended to favor a kind of minimalism known as behaviorism, in this context the refusal to ascribe to an animal a capability beyond the least demanding that would explain a behavior. Put crudely, the behaviorist argument is, why should humans postulate consciousness and all its near-human implications in animals to explain some behavior, if mere stimulus-response is a sufficient explanation to produce the same effects?

The cautious wording of Beth Dixon's 2001 paper on animal emotion[1] exemplifies this viewpoint.

"Recent work in the area of ethics and animals suggests that it is philosophically legitimate to ascribe emotions to nonhuman animals. Furthermore, it is sometimes argued that emotionality is a morally relevant psychological state shared by humans and nonhumans. What is missing from the philosophical literature that makes reference to emotions in nonhuman animals is an attempt to clarify and defend some particular account of the nature of emotion, and the role that emotions play in a characterization of human nature. I argue in this paper that some analyses of emotion are more credible than others. Because this is so, the thesis that humans and nonhumans share emotions may well be a more difficult case to make than has been recognized thus far."

In a similar tone, according to Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson:[2]

"While the study of emotion is a respectable field, those who work in it are usually academic psychologists who confine their studies to human emotions. The standard reference work, The Oxford Companion to Animal Behavior, advises animal behaviorists that 'One is well advised to study the behaviour, rather than attempting to get at any underlying emotion'."

There is considerable uncertainty and difficulty related to the interpretation and ambiguity of emotion: an animal may make certain movements and sounds, and show certain brain and chemical signals when its body is damaged in a particular way. But does this mean an animal feels - is aware of - pain as we are, or does it merely mean it is programmed to act a certain way with certain stimuli? Similar questions can be asked of any activity an animal (including a human) might undertake, in principle. Though it is well accepted by scientists that animals do in fact feel pain, that animals have emotions as we understand them is not a view generally held by most scientists. Instead instinct is seen as the driving force behind most animals, though primates are accepted as more sentient than other animals by many scientists. Such philosophical questions as emotion implies are difficult to address with reductionist methods, compared to the relatively exciting and verifiable advances being made elsewhere in neuroscience at the time. Because of the philosophical questions of consciousness and mind involved, many scientists have stayed away from examining animal emotion, and have studied instead, measurable brain functions, through neuroscience. For this reason, although many lay people will advocate that animals they know have emotions, in fact the matter is not considered accepted scientifically.

Current research and findings[]

Research suggests that animals can experience negative emotions in a similar manner to people, including the equivalent of certain chronic and acute psychological conditions. The classic experiment for this was Martin Seligman's foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965, as an extension of his interest in depression:

A dog that had earlier been repeatedly conditioned to associate a sound with electric shocks did not try to escape the electric shocks after the warning was presented, even though all the dog would have had to do is jump over a low divider within ten seconds, more than enough time to respond. The dog didn't even try to avoid the "aversive stimulus"; it had previously "learned" that nothing it did mattered. A follow-up experiment involved three dogs affixed in harnesses included one that received shocks of identical intensity and duration to the others, but the lever which would otherwise have allowed the dog a degree of control was left disconnected and didn't do anything. The first two dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but the third dog suffered chronic symptoms of clinical depression as a result of this perceived helplessness.

A further series of experiments showed that (similar to humans) under conditions of long term intense psychological stress, around 1/3 of dogs do not develop learned helplessness or long term depression. Instead these animals somehow managed to find a way to handle the unpleasant situation in spite of their past experience. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with an explanatory style and optimistic attitude and lower levels of emotional rigidity regarding expectations, that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. Such studies highlighted similar distinctions between people who adapt and those who break down, under long term psychological pressure, which were conducted in the 1950s in the realm of brainwashing.

Since this time, symptoms analogous to clinical depression, neurosis and other psychological conditions have been in general accepted as being within the scope of animal emotion as well.

See also[]

References & Bibliography[]

  1. Ethics & the Environment, Volume 6, Number 2, Autumn 2001, pp. 22-30, Indiana University Press [1]
  2. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Susan McCarthy: When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals ISBN 0-385-31428-0

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