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People With More Human Empathy Better Understand Animal Sounds

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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.

Reference: Greenall JS, Cornu L, Maigrot AL, de la Torre MP, Briefer EF. Age, empathy, familiarity, domestication and call features enhance human perception of animal emotion expressions. Royal Society Open Science. 9(12):221138. doi:10.1098/rsos.221138

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