A new study has found that people who excel at empathy tests are also better at deciphering the emotional sounds of animals.
The study, which included the vocalizations of six different mammal species, was conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen and included 1,024 participants from 48 countries.
The researchers found that on average, humans were able to accurately guess the emotions being expressed by the animals more often than if they were simply guessing randomly.
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen recorded the vocalizations of six different mammal species in situations of various arousal associated with positive or negative valence, and then played these sounds to 1,024 participants from 48 different countries.
The researchers studied several demographic characteristics that could affect the ability to interpret the animals’ sounds.
- Work with animals: The researchers observed a decisive factor in the group of test subjects that interact with animals in their work—also when it comes to other animals.
- Age: The results show a clear difference. People under 20 perform worse, 20-29-year-olds are best in the test, and the ability to decode animal sounds decreases steadily with age.
- Empathy: The researchers were most surprised that good results in an empathy test towards humans also yielded significantly better results with the animal sounds.
- Gender: On the other hand, there was no measurable difference between men and women, despite the popular assumption that women are more empathetic/emotionally intelligent.
- Parenthood: Neither was there a measurable difference between whether the subjects had children or not.
- Educational level (with or without a BA) did not make a noticeable difference.
- Domestication: A final aspect that influenced the results was about the animals rather than the subjects. Domesticated pigs and horses were easier to decode for subjects than their wild relatives.
Participants were presented with several questions, each containing two animal sounds from one particular animal, with either different arousal (but the same valence), or different valence (but the same arousal).
They then had to guess if the sound was high or low arousal/positive or negative emotional charge (i.e. valence).
The study found that on average, humans were able to accurately guess the emotions being expressed by the animals more often than if they were simply guessing randomly.
The correct answers for arousal (stress or excitement) were 54.1% and for valence (positive or negative emotions) 55.3%.
This marks the first time that so many different animal sounds have been tested on humans in terms of both arousal and valence, and the results suggest that humans have a significant ability to understand the emotions of other species.
The study also identified several factors that affected a person’s ability to interpret animal sounds. People under the age of 20 performed worse on the test, while those aged 20-29 were the most successful.
Good results on an empathy test towards humans were also correlated with better results with the animal sounds, but there was no significant difference between men and women or between those with and without children.
Educational level and whether the animal was domesticated or wild also did not have a noticeable impact on the results.
These findings have important implications for our understanding of the common emotional system among mammals and for improving animal welfare.
Being able to accurately interpret the emotional states of animals can help us to better understand their needs and provide better care for them.
The study also highlights the importance of empathy in our ability to understand the emotions of others, whether they are human or animal.
Further research will be needed to fully understand the factors that influence our ability to interpret animal emotions and to determine whether these results are applicable to other species.