Do Dogs Have a Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias – We all suffer from it.

This is the  phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

It’s hardwired: We cannot easily escape negativity bias. Research studies have shown that the human brain actually experiences stronger neural activity when reacting to negative information compared with when we are given positive information. As a result unpleasant experiences are inevitably more memorable to us than are pleasurable ones.

Why do we have it? Our negativity bias is thought to have evolved as a method for keeping ourselves and those we love out of harm’s way. Think about it like this – your chances of survival are greater if you have a natural tendency to pay more attention to things that may be harmful to you, than if you exist with a more rose-colored view of the world and attend more readily to things that are pleasurable and harmless. Missing the lethal stuff can be, well, lethal (which means that you did not stay around long enough to reproduce and pass along your rosy view of the world to your offspring). In addition to wreaking havoc on our self-esteem, the negativity bias helps to explain why humans love to gossip and why we have a tendency to remember (and sometimes repeat) negative information about others.

NEGATIVITY BIAS BAGGAGE

We tilt towards negative because it was a trait that enhanced survival. The psychological baggage and tendency to gossip came along for the ride.

Negativity bias with dogs: Negativity bias also rears its ugly head during interactions with our dogs, most commonly when owners react only to their dog’s undesirable behaviors (jumping up, chewing, barking) and ignore desirable behaviors. This mindset puts the owner into the position of having to do something to stop, change, or redirect the unwanted behavior. And yet, the same owner often neither notices nor reacts to her dog when he is sitting (not jumping), enjoying his own chew toy (not destroying the TV remote), or lying quietly (not barking). Many trainers, including myself, encourage our students to resist this tendency and focus on attending to and reinforcing the desired behaviors that their dogs offer throughout the day. However, this is a lesson that we must repeat again and again because of the negativity bias – it is our human habit to be more sensitive to negative information than positive, and this includes experiences with our dogs.

Do dogs have it? Since it is theorized that negativity bias evolved as a survival trait, we would expect to see it in other animals. So, do dogs have it? A group of researchers at the Clever Dog Lab of the University of Vienna published a recent paper that offers some clues.

The Study: The researchers were actually studying emotional contagion in dogs, a basic form of empathy in which an individual unconsciously matches the emotional state of another. Previous work has shown that dogs express emotional contagion with both other dogs and with humans. They also can show sympathetic concern, a form of empathy that is one rung up on the cognitive complexity ladder (see “I Feel Your Pain“). However, all of the previous studies with dogs have focused on their reactions to distress signals only. In this new study, the researchers wanted to determine whether dogs emotionally differentiate between vocalizations that signify distress (negative emotional state) and those that reflect happiness or joy (positive emotional state).

What they did: A group of 51 pet dogs and their owners participated in the study and were tested individually. In each session,  four different acoustic (sound) recordings were played to the dog with the owner present. The test recordings included positive and negative human vocalizations (laughing and crying, respectively) and  positive and negative dog vocalizations (play barks and isolation whines, respectively). The control recording was sounds recorded from the dogs’ natural environment. During the testing, dogs were off-lead and allowed to roam freely in the room while the owner sat quietly in a chair, reading a magazine (i.e. not interacting with the dog). The dog’s behavioral responses to each sound recording were videotaped and analyzed.

What they found: The design of this study allowed the researchers to compare dogs’ responses when exposed to recordings of both humans and dogs and when they heard vocalizations that expressed positive (laughing, play barks) or negative (crying, whining) emotions:

  • Presence of emotional contagion (empathy): When exposed to any of the four types of emotional sounds, the dogs became more attentive to the direction of the sound, moved toward the sound, approached their owner, and showed signs of arousal. They did not react in this way to the control sounds.
  • Dogs paid more attention to negative information than to positive information: When they heard sounds of either a human crying or a dog whining, the dogs froze in place more often, remained immobile for longer periods, and showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog. Species did not matter – the dogs were more sensitive to distress sounds than they were to happy sounds. They also “matched” the negative emotions with their own stress, with both humans and other dogs.
  • Negativity bias? In addition to these data showing that dogs are capable of distinguishing between positive and negative vocalizations and reacting accordingly, they suggest the presence of a negativity bias in dogs, similar to what we experience as humans.  The authors state: “…it is plausible that the contagious effect of negative emotions, which indicate aversive or dangerous situations, affect others’ behavioral responses more than positive ones“.

Take Away for Dog Folks: The dog training implications of these results are pretty obvious. After all, we know that the fallout of living with negativity bias is not pleasant. Evolutionary benefits aside, this is a bias that most humans would be happy to be rid of.

Knowing that dogs  are naturally more sensitive to negative information (and emotions) than to positive and also knowing that dogs react to the negative emotions of others with stress, then it is a no-brainer to conclude that we should avoid aversives when we train and interact with our dogs. There are of course many reasons that we should focus on positive reinforcement and reduce or eliminate the use of aversives in training. This research just adds one more – negative emotions (harsh voice, hard stares, anger) emotionally bleed into our dogs and cause them to be unhappy and stressed. Not only are they aware of these emotions in us, they may be more sensitive to them than we have previously realized.

Like us, dogs may suffer from the fallout of negativity bias.

MARGE SHARES THE LATEST NEIGHBORHOOD GOSSIP WITH MABEL

Cited Study: Huber A, Barber ALA, Farago T, Muller CA, Huber L. Investigating emotional contagion in dogs (Canis familiaris) to emotional sounds of humans and conspecifics. Animal Cognition 2017′ 20:703-715.

I Feel Your Pain

Many people who live with multiple dogs have had the pleasure of experiencing two dogs who become great friends. Call the relationship what you will – bonded pair, social partners, housemates, doggy pals – I personally prefer friends, but hey, tomato/tomato, agreed? Regardless of what you label it, it is without question that dogs are highly social, that they bond with others in their social group, and that some dogs bond very strongly to each other.

dog friends

SOME MIGHT CALL IT LOVE

The emotional lives of dogs: It is (finally) accepted by scientists that dogs, like many other species, express a wide range of basic emotions. These include, but may not be limited to, fear, anxiety, jealousy, pleasure, playfulness, and happiness. (I would also add joy and silliness to these, but then, I live with a Toller).

Chippy Wet and Happy

THE WORD “JOY” COMES TO MIND

What about empathy? Seeing that dogs are highly social and that they bond closely to their companions, it is not a big jump to ask whether or not they are capable of feeling concern for others. At its most basic, empathy refers to the ability to share the emotions of another individual. However, there is debate over whether or not the expression of empathy must involve the capacity to take the perspective of the other, a level of cognition that requires at least a rudimentary “theory of mind”. One approach to resolving this debate has been to classify empathy into several types, each requiring different levels of cognitive complexity.

  • Emotional contagion, at the lowest level, refers to simply being affected by and sharing another’s emotional state. This form of empathy has been found to exist in a wide variety of species, including dogs.
  •  The next step up, sympathetic concern is expressed through comforting behaviors. The subject not only feels the other’s emotions, but attempts to provide comfort to alleviate the other’s distress. This level of empathy as well has been demonstrated in a wide range of species. Chimpanzees, some species of birds, and dogs all have been shown to demonstrate comforting behaviors towards others in distress.
  • At the peak of the cognitive scale is empathic perspective, which requires the capacity to understand and appraise a situation from the other individual’s perspective.  An example of this is prosocial helping. a talent that dogs have indeed been found to be capable of  when they are made aware of their owner’s goal. (We looked at this research in “Lend a Helping Paw“).

All about us: So, one might be inclined to stop here, seeing that there is certainly evidence of empathic responses in dogs. But herein lies the rub. All of this work has examined not if dogs respond empathically to other dogs, but rather, how dogs recognise and respond to the emotional state of humans. This is all very cool work, for sure, but it is rather odd seeing that all of the research with other species such as Chimpanzees, Bonobos, birds, and even elephants have examined empathic responses among con-specifics – members of their own species. Most of the results in those animals have also reported that individuals are much more likely to demonstrate empathy (at any level) for a close relative or a member of their social group than for an unfamiliar individual.

Do dogs care about their friends? Do we know anything about how dogs react to the distress of other dogs? If they do show empathy, will they react more dramatically to a known dog friend versus an unfamiliar dog? Recently, a group of researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria and at the Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest Hungary asked exactly these questions (1).

The Study: Sixteen pairs of dogs who had lived together in the same home for at least one year were included in the study. Within each pair, one dog was randomly assigned to be the subject and the other to be the “distressed” partner. The partner’s stress whine was pre-recorded and used during the experiment. Each subject dog was studied under three conditions, spaced apart by 2-week intervals: (1) the whine of their (absent) household partner; (2) the whine of an unfamiliar dog; and (3) a recording of computer-generated sounds with a cadence and frequency similar to dog whines (the control). The subject dog’s physiological response (heart rate and salivary cortisol levels) and behavioral response (stress signals) were recorded before and after listening to the recorded sounds, which came from behind an opaque screen. At the end of each period, the partner dog was immediately brought into the room, apparently from behind the screen (the reunion phase) and the subject dog’s behavior upon seeing his or her housemate was also recorded. (You can imagine how this would feel…..”Dude! What were they doing to you back there??!!!”)

Results: The dogs in this study definitely reacted to the distress calls of another dog. Upon hearing a distressed dog calling, the dogs spent significantly more time gazing towards the source of the cries and moving closer to the source than they did when exposed to the non-dog control sounds. This should not be surprising to anyone who lives with more than one dog, certainly. This study also provided a few interesting nuances regarding how dogs express their concern for other dogs:

  • Dogs care about other dogs: The dogs expressed more anxiety and stress behaviors when they listened to the recorded cries of their housemate  or an unfamiliar dog compared to when they were listening to the control sounds.
  • Expressing their concern: When dogs were reunited with their partners, they spent more time with their friend and showed more affiliative (loving) behaviors towards their partner after having heard a recording of the partner’s whine compared to when they had heard an unfamiliar whine or the control sounds.
  • Feeling stressed: Hearing their friend whining also caused dogs’ salivary cortisol levels to remain elevated during the testing conditions, suggesting that physiological stress was elevated when compared with the control condition.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  This study, the first to directly measure dogs’ empathic response to other dogs, provides evidence that dogs are capable of the first level of empathy, emotional contagion. The dogs were clearly affected by and shared the distressed emotional state of a dog who they could hear but not see. The study also showed us that dogs recognize and respond to the distress of a friend more intensely than they do to the distress of a dog who they do not know and that they show strong affiliative behaviors towards their friend upon being reunited. These behaviors suggest that not only do dogs recognize the vocalizations of their friends (which has been demonstrated in other studies) but that they express the second level of empathy – sympathetic concern.

Anecdotes about dogs who love each other and who express distress and concern for their friends abound. Personally, I too carry the belief that dogs, as highly social beings, care for and are concerned for the welfare of their canine buddies. Now we have a bit of research to support this, continuing to expand our understanding of who our dogs are and about what matters to them in their lives.

Empathetic Dog

BUDDY, I FEEL YOUR PAIN. REALLY I DO. RESEARCH TELLS US SO.

Cited Study: Quervel-Chaumette M, Faerber V, Farago T, Marshall-Pescini S, Range F. Investigating empathy-like responding to conspecifics’ distress in pet dogs. PLOS-One 2016; 11 (4):e0152920. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152920.

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).

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