It’s no surprise that empathy for our fellow humans is linked to our empathy for non-human animals, which is why it makes sense — according to a new study — that human empathy can increase our ability to understand animal sounds/noises. That can, in turn, improve animal welfare in various industries — most notably, farmed animal welfare.
Science X’s Department of Biology recently conducted a study alongside Agroscope and ETH Zurich (two Swiss institutions), in which researchers looked for “traces of a so-called common emotional system among mammals.” Elodie Briefer, who is a behavioral biologist, says that the results of the study show that, based on sounds that animals make, we (i.e. humans) can figure out if an animal is “expressing positive or negative emotions.” This can be applied to a number of different mammals, not bound to any particular species. Also, Briefer asserts, it is evident that humans’ “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.”
A total of 1,024 people — from 48 different countries worldwide — participated in this study, which was the first time numerous, varied 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).” This included the vocalizations/calls of 6 different mammals; participants heard the sounds of Asian wild horses, cattle, domesticated horses, goats, as well as pigs and wild boars. Other sounds included “human gibberish” from actors. Among the participants’ answers, 55.4% were correct for valence and 54.1% were correct for arousal.
Participants in the study provided information about themselves, such as their ages, gender identities, and educational backgrounds. Their participation ended when they took an empathy test, which caused researchers to see the myriad of factors influencing “how well humans understand animal sounds.” If you work and/or are often around animals, it’s more than likely that you are much better at understanding animals than the general population. Over time, you become familiar with individual species’ and animals’ noises, so that you can tell whether they are happy, sad, angry, excited, etc. Your animal noise sensitivity can be even higher if you exhibit empathy towards other humans and are in your 20s, and those younger than 20 performed the worse; the results decreased with increasing age. Overall, according to the study, it seems that “an intimate knowledge of animals generally promotes the understanding of animals’ emotional lives.” Just like with other humans, the more familiar you become with someone, the easier it becomes to understand their emotions.
Another (similar) study focused on the link between human and animal empathy. In it, 514 adults took a questionnaire that measured their empathy both with humans and with animals. The study found that there was “a significant, but modest correlation between the two scales” that measure empathy, which meant that, even though two types of empathy are clearly linked, “they are unlikely to tap a single, unitary construct.” This relates to the findings regarding the relationship between empathy for animals and pet ownership (either currently or in the past), and empathy for humans was related to living or previously having lived with a child or children.
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Animal “noises”? When humans speak to a cat or dog, the cat or dog listens because he understands that there is meaning there, not “noise.”