Are You Good at Understanding Animals? It Could Be Because You’re More Empathetic

When you hear your cat or dog make a noise, do you think you have a good idea what they’re trying to tell you? A new study finds that if you do interpret animal sounds correctly, it could be because you’re more empathetic.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen, ETH Zurich, and Agroscope recently examined how well people understood the emotions behind an animal’s vocalizations, and then looked for trends among the traits of successful participants. The findings, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, show that empathy played a role in understanding an animal’s joy or pain.

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Elodie Briefer, study co-author and behavioral biologist from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology, says, “Our results show that based on its sounds we, humans, can determine whether or not an animal is stressed (or excited), and whether it is expressing positive or negative emotions. This applies across a number of different mammals. We can also see that our 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.”

To conduct the study, the team included more than 1,000 participants from 48 different countries. They were played sounds from goats, cattle, Asian wild horses, domesticated horses, pigs, and wild boars, interspersed with human gibberish.

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The team learned that, in addition to those who scored higher on empathy tests, participants between the ages of 20 and 29 were better attuned to the animals’ vocalizations. However, those younger than this group were the worst at understanding the noises. People who worked with animals also performed well.

The team says their research could have implications for animal welfare.

Briefer explains, “Today, animal welfare is defined by the emotional life of animals. Therefore, new knowledge provided by this study is important for both basic and applied research. On the one hand, it increases the understanding of animal emotions, and it opens opportunities to improve that understanding.

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“For example, the development of an app where AI supports those who work with animals offers promising perspectives. But it is also important to note that there is nothing to prevent someone from beginning to improve their own skills now if they interact with animals on a daily basis.”

Briefer adds that when students first took the test, they scored around 50%, but their scores went up substantially after further discussions on the knowledge surrounding animal vocalizations, which could show that it’s possible for everyone to improve their understanding.

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