“You bad boy,” you say in your sternest voice. Rover lowers his head, whines and backs away. “Yes,” you say in a slightly more conciliatory tone. “You are a bad boy, aren’t you.” Rover rolls over onto his back. “Bad boy,” you say in a now-cuddly voice, patting his tummy. Rover wags his tail.
So, what’s up here? Was Rover feeling real guilt when you walked in? Did he see tearing up the trash as a moral failing? Or does he simply have such a good bead on you that he knows that putting on a particular “guilty” look is the best way to defuse your annoyance and get you back on his side?
Jason Goldman reports on a new study that seeks to answer the question:
There is plenty of evidence for what scientists refer to as primary emotions – happiness and fear, for example – in animals. But empirical evidence for secondary emotions like jealousy, pride, and guilt, is extremely rare in the animal cognition literature.
The argument usually given for this lack of evidence is that such secondary emotions seem to require a level of cognitive sophistication, particularly when it comes to self-awareness or self-consciousness, that may not exist in non-human animals. In other words, guilt is complicated.
A group of scientists working in Budapest have created an experiment designed to answer two questions:
First, would dogs who had misbehaved in their owners’ absences behave differently when greeting their owners than dogs who had not misbehaved? Second, would owners be able to determine, upon entering a room and relying solely on dog greeting behavior, whether or not their dogs had actually transgressed?
As to the first question, a group of dogs who had learned that certain activities were “wrong” displayed more guilt-related behaviors when their guardians came back “home” and scolded them than when they simply greeted them.
When the study probed a little deeper, though, the results were more confusing. For example:
Each dog had three opportunities to greet their owners. Once before the rule had been established, a second time after the rule had been established and dogs had an opportunity to violate the rule, and a third time, after the rule had been established, but without an opportunity to violate the rule.
While all dogs were more likely to act guilty during the second greeting while being scolded, only the dogs who had actually transgressed were more likely to continue acting guilty during the third greeting.
Taken together, these results both support the common anecdote that dogs act guilty prior to their owners’ awareness of the violation, as well as the earlier scientific findings that, regardless of transgression, dogs act guilty in response to being scolded by their owners.
The researchers say they now want to do a study where the dogs are at home, not in an unfamiliar environment.
It may still be some time before we can know for certain whether dogs can experience guilt, or whether people can determine if a dog has violated a rule prior to finding concrete evidence of it.
Regardless, we may assume that our attempts to figure out what’s going on in the minds of dogs are no match for our dogs’ ability to figure out what’s going on in our minds – and to exploit it to their best advantage!