Can Dogs feel guilty?
You’ve come home to find the counter cleared off and the empty bread bag on the floor with Fido nearby, head down eyes averted looking guilty as hell. But does she really feel guilt.
Seventy-four percent of dog owners believe that their dogs experience guilt. It sure looks like guilt. Psychologists label feelings like happiness and fear as primary emotions, that is a direct response to external events, and there is plenty of evidence of these emotions in dogs. But emotions like jealousy, pride, and guilt are termed secondary emotions and are feelings about feelings. There has been little evidence of secondary emotions in animal cognition literature.
That does not mean that dogs do not experience guilt but perhaps that hang dog look is really something else. Charles Darwin observed that the types of behaviours associated with guilt - keeping one's head down, and averting one's gaze - are also seen in other social non-human primate species. These behaviours have been interpreted as a means to mitigate retaliation for transgressions in social groups and as such are more pragmatic than emotion based. Indeed, anecdotally pet owners report that they chastise their pets less harshly when these displays of apparent guilt for transgressions are displayed. Is Fido, then, attempting to lessen the anticipated reprimand rather than actually feeling guilt?
A group of canine cognition researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, created an experiment to find out. Sixty-four dogs were selected and a normal greeting behaviour was established for each. Then the dogs were presented with an opportunity to misbehave when left alone in a room (stealing food from a table) and the greeting behaviour when their owners returned was recorded for both those that had misbehaved and those that had not. Keep in mind that they were all aware of the possibility that they may be in trouble.
The two groups were equally likely to display guilt type behaviours whether they had transgressed or not.
It seems like the guilt type behaviours are a means of mitigating an anticipated punishment and probably not an emotional response.
Reference: Scientific American By Jason G. Goldman on May 31, 2012
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