19 May 2017

BEHAVIOUR - The Moral Judgement of Dogs

How often do you help another person?

Whatever the answer is, your dog notices, and has opinions on the subject!

Recent research by psychologists at Kyoto University found that both capuchin monkeys and pet dogs showed a preference for interacting with humans who had demonstrated helpful behaviour towards other humans.

This is similar to the way that human babies show a preference for helpful adults, and may suggest an evolutionary trend among social mammals.

This ability to recognize, and show a preference for, prosocial behaviour among others may even be the origin of morality.

James Anderson, the lead researcher in the Kyoto University study, told New Scientist that, “I think that in humans there may be this basic sensitivity towards antisocial behaviour in others. Then through growing up, inculturation  and teaching, it develops into a full-blown sense of morality.”

Although this recent research focused on capuchins and pet dogs, other research has found similar social awareness in other animals.

Bonobos, for instance, have been found to recognize unfair treatment within their social groups, and react to the unfairness both with indignation if they are the victim and even intervention if they are a bystander.

Even rats have been shown to demonstrate what Frans de Waal refers to as “altruistic impulses,” and will attempt to free a suffering fellow rat before seeking chocolate, when given the choice.

But these altruistic impulses, which include altruism, empathy, and gratitude, are not necessarily the same thing as the recognition and judgement of other group members’ behaviour.

Third party evaluation of social behaviour, which is what human children, pet dogs, and capuchin monkeys have all now been shown to do, is a complex process.

Even more interesting and impressive is the fact that capuchin monkeys demonstrated an ability to, according to the Kyoto University’s study abstract, “monitor the context of failures to help and violations of reciprocity, and that intentionality is one factor underlying their social evaluations of individuals.”

This evaluation of motivations is particularly interesting given Frans de Waal’s assertion that reputation building is a critical part of human morality.

One piece of good news for dog owners now worried about their reputations among the furry set – having a pet dog makes it more likely that you will behave in prosocial ways.

Research published earlier this year found that the presence of a companion dog leads to behaviour that is “more cooperative, comfortable, friendly, active, enthusiastic, and attentive.”

So, while your dog may be judging you, they’re also helping you make choices that will get the wags.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a published academic, an editor with the Editors Association of Canada, an independent scholar and researcher, and a self-care and narrative coach. She is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and identity - how our tools shape our selves and change our stories, and in how the nature of work is changing as we incorporate more technology into our daily lives.

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