It was long assumed that nonhuman animals don’t have emotions, or that their emotions are qualitatively different from human emotions. However, increasing research into animal behaviour, cognition and emotions has shown that assumption to be false. Many animals – at least all vertebrates – have basic emotions. Behavioural and cognitive research of animals sorely needs to be complemented by emotion science. For that to be possible, there is a need for further development of methods to measure animal emotions.
As knowledge about nonhuman cognitive and emotional processes accumulates, it puts the presumed human uniqueness into a new perspective. Similarly, the relationships of humans with other species amongst us need to be re-evaluated. Human-animal interactions are increasingly studied from multidisciplinary perspectives. In our project, we ask how people recognize and interpret animal emotions. Studies thus far suggest that people are poor at recognizing animal emotions, which has implications e.g. in all contexts where animal welfare depends on human actions, or safety of humans depends on the correct interpretation of animal behaviour.
Infrared thermography, also known as thermal imaging, is a technology for measuring distributions of surface temperatures at a distance. Several practical applications have already been developed to improve health and welfare of humans and other animals. For example, in human and veterinary medicine thermographic methods are already in use to find suspected sites of local inflammation and nerve damage.
We conduct fundamental research that is needed as ground work to enable development of methods to measure surface temperature changes relating to animal emotions. Before measurement is possible, considerable research effort is still needed to reliably distinguish emotion-linked effects in surface temperature from environmental temperature effects; to explore under which conditions emotion-linked temperature effects become masked by thermoregulation of the body; and to investigate how these effects may differ between species.
Ultimately, measuring animal emotions with thermography has the potential to improve animal welfare in zoos and other facilities, by providing additional information on how the animals are, helping to detect and remedy problems, and to test whether improvements in animals' living conditions have worked as intended.
People assign various characteristics to animals. We may assume, for example, cats to have human-like motivations driving their actions, such as being malicious or psychopathic. Simultaneously we may think that a bird cannot express joy, or we misinterpret dogs’ anxiety as shame. Such interpretations may depend on our prior experience, general attitude towards or knowledge about animals, personal characteristics, or characteristics of the animal or the particular emotion.
For example, species’ taxonomic position, and people’s empathic tendency and cultural background affect whether people attribute mental states or emotions to animals. Whether these factors also predict recognition of animal emotions across taxa is largely unknown. In a series of experiments, we will test which animal and viewer characteristics influence emotion recognition.
The study will yield fundamental knowledge of the factors that affect how people perceive and interpret animal emotions. This, in turn, illuminates the more general factors influencing human-animal relationships, which is highly relevant for the welfare of both humans and nonhumans alike.