Human Empathy Makes Us Better at Understanding Animal Sounds

Summary: People who score higher for empathy traits are better able to understand and decode the emotional sounds of animals.

Source: University of Copenhagen

Those who do well on human empathy tests are also measurably better at decoding the emotional sounds of animals, according to a new study from the University of Copenhagen. Other aspects, such as age and work related to animals, are also shown to play a crucial role.

If you have a Jolly Jumper in the barn or have ever made bacon out of Babe, chances are you’re better at hearing when an animal is having a good or bad time than other people are. And, if you are between 20-29 years old and empathetic towards fellow humans, then your chances are even greater.

This is demonstrated by new research from the Department of Biology, conducted in a collaboration with Swiss institutions, ETH Zurich and Agroscope.

In the big picture, the researchers were looking for traces of a so-called common emotional system among mammals, but the research also has specific applications related to animal welfare.

“Our results show that based on its sounds we, humans, can determine whether or not an animal is stressed (or excited), and whether it is expressing positive or negative emotions. This applies across a number of different mammals. We can also see that our ability to interpret the sounds depends on several factors, such as age, close knowledge of animals and, not least, how empathetic we are towards other people,” says behavioural biologist Elodie Briefer from the Department of Biology.

This marks the first time that so many different animal sounds were tested on humans, both in terms of arousal (i.e. stress/excitement) and valence (i.e. the charge of emotions positive vs negative).

1024 people from 48 different countries participated in the study, which included the vocalizations, or calls, of 6 mammals. The sounds of goats, cattle, Asian wild horses (Przewalski’s horses), domesticated horses, pigs and wild boars were played to participants along with the sounds of human gibberish from actors.

Ability to interpret animal sounds varies

On average, we humans, among animal species, can “guess” accurately more often than if you rolled a single dice and got random bids, the results show. For arousal, the correct answers amounted to 54.1% and for valence, that figure was 55.3%.

Participants were also asked to provide information about a range of factors including their age, gender and level of education, just as they wrapped up their participation with an empathy test, and the researchers observed several interesting factors in relation to how well humans understand animal sounds.

First and foremost, the results are significantly better when participants work with animals – even when the task is to listen to animals other than the ones that they are immediately familiar with. Thus, the results suggest that an intimate knowledge of animals generally promotes the understanding of animals’ emotional lives.

“This is good news for animal welfare. For example, farmers who want to ensure that their pigs are thriving are well-equipped to capture that,” says Elodie Briefer.

Age plays a role as well. Here, the study data shows that the better scores were found among the 20-29-year olds. On the other hand, the results demonstrate that participants under the age of twenty are the worst performers, and that the number of correct answers decreases with age.

Empathy for humans and animals is linked

Most surprising to the researchers was that their results showed a marked correlation between empathy for humans and animals.

“It was really surprising for me and very interesting that those who performed well in a recognized test to assess people’s empathic level – towards other people, mind you – were also significantly better at understanding the emotional lives of animals,” says Elodie Briefer.

“We could have used other tests that measure how a person relates to animals, but to make it simpler, we stuck to this particular empathy test, which was translated and validated for the eight languages in the study. It is a recognized test, but it measures empathy towards other people. Nevertheless, we see a clear correlation with the ability to interpret animal sounds,” she continues.

Animal welfare is all about emotions

“Today, animal welfare is defined by the emotional life of animals. Therefore, new knowledge provided by this study is important for both basic and applied research. On the one hand, it increases the understanding of animal emotions, and it opens opportunities to improve that understanding,” says Elodie Briefer.

According to the researcher, the knowledge contributed by the study shows the path to concrete ways to work on improving animal welfare through an understanding of their emotional lives.

“For example, the development of an app where AI supports those who work with animals offers promising perspectives. But it is also important to note that there is nothing to prevent someone from beginning to improve their own skills now if they interact with animals on a daily basis,” Briefer points out.

“When students try the test in class, they obtain an average of 50 percent of correct answers on the first try. After we talk about the sounds and knowledge that we have about animal vocalizations, they improve. On their second attempts, they typically get above 70% correct. It is natural to explore this potential in future studies. I definitely think that it’s possible to practice and improve this ability for the vast majority of people,” says Elodie

Extra info: The evolution of emotions

The researchers searched for traces of a common emotional system between mammals, which may have been preserved throughout evolutionary history. The study supports that thesis when it comes to recognizing arousal in particular.

While results show large variation in how good people are in discerning whether the animals are experiencing positive or negative emotions, there is much less difference in how humans distinguish between high and low arousal among mammals.

According to Elodie Briefer, this may be because we in the mammalian family share common traits when it comes to how we express the intensity of our emotions (i.e. arousal) – giving participants some innate ability to interpret arousal, and making results less dependent on acquired knowledge.

“Roughly speaking, higher-frequency sounds (in addition to other features) are often a sign of higher arousal, and lower-frequency sounds a sign of lower. If a subject uses the same standard to interpret animal sounds that he or she would use to understand a human, then it is often correct. We express arousal more similarly than valence because it is linked to stress pathways, which are evolutionarily well preserved in mammals,” explains the researcher.

Facts: How researchers define animal emotions

Emotions are intense, short-term reactions triggered in response to certain internal or external stimuli.

They are characterized by a certain level of arousal (bodily activation) and valence (positive versus negative).

In the study, test animals were recorded in situations of various arousal and associated with positive or negative valence (e.g. expectation of food / food frustration).

This shows a dog howling
In the big picture, the researchers were looking for traces of a so-called common emotional system among mammals, but the research also has specific applications related to animal welfare. Image is in the public domain

The emotional valence was then verified using behavioral indicators described in the research literature. Emotional arousal was assessed based on the heart rates of domestic animals and on movement (a good behavioural indicator of arousal) in wild species.

Facts: Who performed best in the test?

The researchers studied several demographic characteristics that could affect the ability to interpret the animals’ sounds.

+ Work with animals – The researchers observed a decisive factor in the group of test subjects that interact with animals in their work – also when it comes to other animals.

+ Age – The results show a clear difference. People under 20 perform worse, 20-29-year-olds are best in the test, and the ability to decode animal sounds decreases steadily with age.

+ Empathy – The researchers were most surprised that good results in an empathy test towards humans also yielded significantly better results with the animal sounds.

– Gender – On the other hand, there was no measurable difference between men and women, despite the popular assumption that women are more empathetic/emotionally intelligent.

– Parenthood – Neither was there a measurable difference between whether the subjects had children or not.

– Educational level (with or without a BA) did not make a noticeable difference.

+ Domestication – a final aspect that influenced the results was about the animals rather than the subjects. Domesticated pigs and horses were easier to decode for subjects than their wild relatives.

Facts: How the researchers did it

Before the test, participants were asked to answer demographic questions – i.e., their gender, age, level of educational and whether they had children. And whether their work or studies were related to animals, and/or they had species, which they were familiar with.

The test itself. Participants were presented with several questions, each containing two animal sounds from one particular animal, with either different arousal (but same valence), or different valence (but same arousal). They then had to guess if the sound was – high or low arousal / positive or negative emotional charge (i.e. valence).

After the test, they were asked to complete a standard empathy test, which assigns scores in 4 dimensions of empathy towards people.

About this empathy and animal psychology research news

Author: Kristian Bjørn-Hansen
Source: University of Copenhagen
Contact: Kristian Bjørn-Hansen – University of Copenhagen
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Age, empathy, familiarity, domestication and call features enhance human perception of animal emotion expressions” by Elodie Floriane Mandel-Briefer et al. Royal Society Open Science


Age, empathy, familiarity, domestication and call features enhance human perception of animal emotion expressions

Vocalizations constitute an effective way to communicate both emotional arousal (bodily activation) and valence (negative/positive). There is strong evidence suggesting that the convergence of vocal expression of emotional arousal among animal species occurs, hence enabling cross-species perception of arousal, but it is not clear if the same is true for emotional valence.

Here, we conducted a large online survey to test the ability of humans to perceive emotions in the contact calls of several wild and domestic ungulates produced in situations of known emotional arousal (previously validated using either heart rate or locomotion) and valence (validated based on the context of production and behavioural indicators of emotions).

Participants (1024 respondents from 48 countries) were able to rate above chance levels the arousal level of vocalizations of three of the six ungulate species and the valence of four of them.

Percentages of correct ratings did not differ a lot across species for arousal (49–59%), while they showed much more variation for valence (33–68%). Interestingly, several factors such as age, empathy, familiarity and specific features of the calls enhanced these scores.

These findings suggest the existence of a shared emotional system across mammalian species, which is much more pronounced for arousal than valence.

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