An Evaluation of Recent Studies in Advancing the Literature on Animals’ Emotions

Subject: Environment
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 1801
Topics: Animal Intelligence, Cognitive Psychology, Emotions

Table of Contents

The study of emotions is characterized by numerous debates over different fundamental issues such as the definition of emotion more so for the nonhuman population. Human emotional states have been presupposed to be bodily, irrational and beyond our control. This characterization has historical antecedents, for example, in Plato’s Republic, emotions are deemed as unintelligent to the extent of their contribution to the destruction of the reasoning capacity. The same consideration is applied to animals even though there exists a distinction in mental capacities between the two groups. Research into animal emotions is gradually emerging from all fields such as neuroscience, zoology, philosophy and evolutionary. These studies include experimental brain lesioning and stimulation in order to identify the neuroanatomical and neurochemistry of emotions, brain scans on the cognitive tasks of animals, observation of behavioural and physiological responses to potential emotional and painful stimulants and the examination of the adaptive value of emotion for motivation and survival. This paper will evaluate how recent studies have advanced our understanding of animals’ emotions.

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Research has concluded that emotional brains are similar across all animal species, human beings included. The central nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord is present in all vertebrates the former consisting of all the major structures and divisions (Boyle, 2009). This means that they all have the capabilities of performing common vital functions including the ability to have emotions. Further, even in some of the invertebrates such as snails, there exists a nervous central system although relatively simplified, which reflects their ability to take in sensory informing, learning and initiating action. With the existence of major brain systems responsible for pain such as the hypothalamus and the limbic system in both animals and humans, it is undoubtedly certain that animals have emotions.

The figure above is a representation of emotions showing the resources, promotion and prevention, and situations, opportunity and threat that emotions are all about (Waal, 2011, p. 203). The utilitarian perspective is an excellent logical starting point in explaining the existence of emotions across all organisms. This is because they enter into a particular bodily and mental states when placed under certain circumstances. Hence, emotion may be described as a temporary state brought about by a biological external stimuli and which causes specific changes in the body and mind of the organism (Waal, 2011). Each emotion is triggered by a specific predictable set of circumstances although optimal response is influenced by a combination of emotions, individual experience and cognitive assessment.

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The term cognitive bias is used in reference to the effects of affective states on cognitive processes. Literature in human psychology indicate that affective states are influential on cognitive processes, for example, negative affective states go hand in hand with greater attention to threatening stimuli and a higher likelihood of pessimistic interpretation of ambiguous information while on the other hand positive affective states reflect more optimistic judgments (Douglas et al, 2012). When the same consideration is applied on nonhumans, optimism and pessimism refer to increased expectation of reward and punishment in the face of ambiguous information respectively. Consequently, this approach provides a more comprehensive framework for predicting the types of biases expected, greater selectivity for the valence of an emotional state and assessment of both the negative and positive affective states all done in a non-invasive nature.

The cognitive bias approach was further advanced in another study involving bottlenose dolphins. The relevant task involved the dolphins touching the target with their rostrum and returning to their trainer where they received a positive or less positive reward the former including one herring, applause and eye contact and the latter included of just an applause and eye  contact  (Clegg, Rodel & Delfour, 2017). Differences in judgment biases were observed, which were characterized by the frequency of synchronous swimming and the parameters of social affiliative behaviours where high frequencies represent a more optimistic judgment in reference to ambiguous cues. Synchronous swimming further indicated a form of social bonding, which shows that social contact causes positive affective states.

It has also been observed that the housing environments have an effect on the type of emotional responses generated by an animal and which may affect the results of such a study. For example, rats placed in a barren cages may lead to frustration and boredom. This means that environmental manipulations can be used to induce certain negative affect and produce pessimistic cognitive biases in response to ambiguous stimuli (Brydges et al., 2011). A study conducted on pigs also indicated an optimistic cognitive bias for those housed in enriched pens as opposed to those housed in barren pens (Douglas et al, 2012). For example, pigs in an enriched environment had an increased likelihood of responding to an ambiguous auditory cue by approaching a hatch where food had previously been placed than pigs in a barren pen. The level of optimism or pessimism is dependent on the kind of environment that the animal had been previously housed. For example, animals exhibit more pessimism in a barren environment especially if they were previously housed in an enriched one. Hence, consideration should be made in determining the kind of housing requirements for experimental animals (Webster, n. d). This is because the achievement of stable or normal affective states is dependent on factors such as environmental enrichment and social contact.

Animals to decipher the social intentions and motivations of each other use the manifestations of emotions. This indicates a more complex ability of extracting and integrating bimodal sensory emotional information in order to establish consequent behaviour. A study conducted on domestic dogs in order to determine the emotional recognition of heterospecifics indicated that dogs have an ability of discriminating human facial expressions and emotional sounds (Albuquerque et al., 2015). This indicates that dogs have the mental prototypes responsible for emotional categorization from auditory and visual modes, which is used in interpreting perceptions of emotions an intrinsically significant aspect of the adaptive mechanism. This is more refined in dog stimuli as compared to human stimuli, which is indicative of a higher sensitivity to facial expressions of the conspecifics reflecting an important social tool for the dogs in addition to forming the functional relationships characterized in the mixed species social groups’ environments where domestic dogs live. This study was significant in providing information demonstrating the cognitive abilities of recognition and integration of emotional information, a capability that was previously known to only exist within the human domain.

Previous studies conducted on human beings showed that there cannot be emotion without some form of cognition as emotional states require a primary appraisal of the emotional stimulus, which consequently leads to action planning and execution followed by an evaluation of the consequences during a secondary appraisal (Boissy et al., 2007). Hence, an individual’s emotional state is influential on various cognitive processes such as judgment, memory and attention. For example, in reference to the impact on memory retrieval, happy and more satisfied people have a higher likelihood of recalling positive memories while unhappy people have a higher likelihood of recalling negative occurrences (Mendl et al, 2009). However, it is worth noting that not all cognitive functions are a response of the affective state and in some instances, this may be a case of individual traits meaning that the decision-making process of the subsequent behaviour is not biased by the current environmental or emotional states. Similarly, animals show a cognition evaluation where appraisal of the events is based on whether the consequences are rewarding or punishing.

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In addition, it was generally recognized that only human beings were capable of experiencing the behaviours related to self-awareness. These include recollection of personal memories, linguistic capabilities, mirror self-referencing and self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame, empathy and pride. With regards to self-referencing, after body markings on a dolphin done on the tongue, the dolphin swam straight towards a mirror where it repeatedly opened and closed its mouth a first time exhibited behaviour from this animal (Simmonds, 2006). This means that the ability to recognize oneself is not limited to human beings only. Further, self-conscious emotions included frustration and aggression exhibited by dolphins when they came into contact with human visitors and an observation of two male dolphins grieving over a body of female that was found dead.

The established concept of the emotional capabilities of nonhuman animals forms the basis of concerns for animal emotional welfare. It is on this foundation that most political and legal statements are based, for example, ratification of treaties such as the Treaty of Amsterdam, which aims at ensuring improved protection and respect for the welfare of animals as sentient animals. Welfare in this context is therefore characterized by guiding the animals’ behavioural decisions for the achievement of survival goals (Proctor, Carder & Cornish, 2013). Currently, Descartes portrayal of animals as robots thereby incapable of reasoning or feeling pain (Descartes 1596-1650) seems to hold no water based on presented scientific evidence. Nevertheless, animals are continually subjected to inhumane treatment on a daily basis for the purposes of food, entertainment and even research. Gaining an understanding of the animal sentience through the numerous studies and researches is of the utmost importance to their welfare.


Attributing emotions to animals was in the past considered unscientific as emotions were considered to be purely in the domain of human experiences. However, over the last decades, the concept of animal emotions has gained widespread popularity based on two options: the existence of the underlying brain networks responsible for the generation of emotions across all species and the considered usefulness of anecdotes. The latter option refers provides a context for the understanding of emotions in particular the expression of empathy, a significant emotional capability present in all animals and which opens up the sphere of emotional influence for all social animals as it gives the foundation for an understanding of an animal’s emotional experiences through observing and understanding the emotional states of other animals and being able to react appropriately.

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Undoubtedly, most animals used in researches and studies have reflected a richness of emotions such as pain, frustration, anger and pleasure. Animals have not only the emotional capacities but also the ability to decipher emotional expressions of other animals as either negative or positive, which is used in determining the subsequent interactions. The cognitive bias approach is the most comprehensive technique on measuring the influence of the environments on the cognitive biases of all animals. For example, studies conducted to determine the effect of environmental enrichment on the changes in cognitive biases indicated that an enriched environment induced optimistic cognitive biases, which manifested by a positive affective state such as satisfaction and happiness. This also means that researchers ought to take great caution in determining the environmental factors that can potentially influence the emotional state of the experimental animal on its emotional and physiological responses.

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