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Human empathy allows us to better understand animal sounds

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If you’ve got a Jolly Jumper in the barn or you’ve ever made bacon with Babe, chances are you’ll hear better when one animal is having a good time or a bad time than the others. And, if you’re between the ages of 20 and 29 and you’re empathetic to other humans, your chances are even greater. This is demonstrated by new research from the Department of Biologycarried out in collaboration with Swiss institutions, ETH Zurich and Agroscope.

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 (activation of the body) and valence (positive versus negative).

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

Emotional valence was then checked using behavioral indicators described in the research literature. Emotional arousal was assessed based on heart rate in domestic animals and movement (a good behavioral indicator of arousal) in wildlife.

Overall, the researchers were looking for traces of a so-called common emotional system in 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 an animal is stressed (or excited) and whether it is expressing positive or negative emotions. This applies to a number of different mammals. We can also see that our ability to interpret sounds depends on several factors, such as age, in-depth knowledge of animals and, above all, our empathy towards others,” explains behavioral biologist Elodie Briefer from the Department of Biology.

This is the first time that so many different animal sounds have been tested on humans, both in terms of arousal (i.e. stress/excitement) and value (i.e. i.e. the charge of positive versus negative emotions).

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

The ability to interpret animal sounds varies

On average, we humans among animal species can “guess” accurately more often than if you rolled a single die and got random offers, the results show. For excitement, the correct answers amounted to 54.1% and for value, this figure was 55.3%.

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

Who did the best on the test?

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

+ Work with animals – The researchers observed a decisive factor in the group of test subjects who interacted with animals in their work – also with regard to other animals.

+ Age – the results show a clear difference. Those under 20 perform worse, those between 20 and 29 perform better on the test, and the ability to decode animal sounds steadily declines with age.

+ Empathy – Researchers were very surprised that doing well in a human empathy test also yielded significantly better results with 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 – There was also no measurable difference between whether subjects had children or not.

The level of studies (with or without a baccalaureate) did not make a notable difference.

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

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

This is good news for animal welfare. For example, farmers who want to ensure that their successful pigs are well equipped to capture this,” explains Elodie Briefer.

Age also plays a role. Here, the study data shows that the best scores were found among 20-29 year olds. On the other hand, the results show that participants under twenty are the least efficient and that the number of correct answers decreases with age.

Empathy for humans and animals is linked

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

“It was really surprising to me and very interesting that those who did well in a recognized test to assess people’s level of empathy – towards others, of course – also understood the emotional life of animals significantly better,” says Elodie. Brief.

The evolution of emotions

The researchers looked for traces of a common emotional system in mammals, which may have been preserved throughout evolutionary history. The study supports this thesis when it comes to recognizing arousal in particular. While the results show a wide variation in people’s ability to discern whether animals are experiencing positive or negative emotions, there is much less difference in how humans distinguish between high and low arousal in 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 an innate ability to interpret excitement and making results less dependent on learning. knowledge.

Basically, high frequency sounds (in addition to other characteristics) are often a sign of higher arousal, and low frequency sounds a sign of lowering. If a subject uses the same standard for interpreting animal sounds that they would use to understand a human, then that is often correct. We express arousal more similarly than valence because it is linked to stress pathways, which are evolutionarily well conserved in mammals,” explains the researcher.

We could have used other tests that measure a person’s relationship with animals, but to simplify, we stuck with this particular empathy test, which has been translated and validated for all eight languages ​​of the study. It is a recognized test, but it measures empathy towards others. Nevertheless, we see a clear correlation with the ability to interpret animal sounds,” she continues.

Animal welfare is a matter of emotions

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

How the researchers did

Before the test, participants had to answer demographic questions – that is, their gender, age, level of education and whether they had children. And if their work or studies were related to animals and/or if they had any species they knew.

The test itself. Participants were given multiple questions, each containing two animal sounds of a particular animal, with either a different arousal (but the same valence) or a different valence (but the same arousal). They then had to guess whether the sound was – high or low arousal / positive or negative emotional charge (i.e. validity).

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

According to the researcher, the insights gained from the study point the way to concrete ways of working to improve animal welfare through an understanding of their emotional lives.

“For example, the development of an application where AI supports those who work with animals offers promising prospects. But it’s also important to note that there’s nothing stopping someone from starting to improve their own skills now if they’re interacting with animals on a daily basis,” Briefer points out.

“When students take the test in class, they get an average of 50% correct on the first try. After talking about the sounds and knowledge we have about animal vocalizations, they get better. On their second attempts, they usually get more than 70% correct answers. It is natural to explore this potential in future studies. I really think it is possible to practice and improve this ability for the vast majority of people,” says Elodie Briefer.