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NOVA ScienceNOW

Animal Morality

  • Posted 11.07.12
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Do dogs feel guilty? Can rats feel empathy? We project very complex—and very human—moral and emotional lives onto our animal companions. Now, scientists studying animal cognition are finally revealing the machinery of animals’ moral compasses.

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Transcript

What Are Animals Thinking?

PBS Airdate: November 7, 2012

DAVID POGUE: Have you ever wondered what animals are thinking.

Show me the love.

I'm David Pogue, and on this episode of NOVA scienceNOW, we're exploring the mysteries of the animal mind.

Like, what's really behind your dog's guilty look.

FINN'S OWNER: No, bad.

DAVID POGUE: Is it possible that a rat knows right from wrong.

They're not smart enough to share. They're rats.

PEGGY MASON (University of Chicago): They're nice, they share.

BRIAN HARE (Duke University): People would have probably predicted that this is something that only humans do.

DAVID POGUE: Oh! Come on.

What secrets lie in this bird's brain.

Hey! There's a pigeon back here.

CHARLES WALCOTT (Cornell University): How do pigeons find their way home? That is the fundamental mystery.

DAVID POGUE: My hunt for animal intelligence leads in strange directions.

ANNE PRINGLE (Harvard University): That is a wild slime mold.

DAVID POGUE: There is no way this thing is intelligent.

ANNE PRINGLE: I think you might be surprised.

DAVID POGUE: Could a hive of bees actually function like the human brain.

Dude! You're sticking your finger in there.

IAIN COUZIN (Princeton University): This completely blows away this idea that you have to be really smart to solve problems.

DAVID POGUE: Stay tuned, as I'm trapped, kidnapped,….

There's no seats in this van.

JIM KORINECK (Pigeon Owner): That's right.

DAVID POGUE: …and thrown to the bees,….

Where's my bee suit.

…all to find out What Are Animals Thinking? Up next, on Nova scienceNOW.

We humans sure love our animals.

She has nail polish on.

And many of us are eager to believe that inside their little heads, they're a lot like us.

BEBE'S OWNER: Any kind of feelings that I can feel, I believe that Bebe is able to feel also.

DOG OWNER ONE: They have a heart, they have a soul, and they definitely can feel what humans do.

DAVID POGUE: And plenty of pet owners are convinced that those feelings include a sense of morality.

Do you think she knows right from wrong.

DOG OWNER TWO: I definitely think she knows right from wrong.

BOCKER'S OWNER: I think Bocker knows right from wrong. He definitely does.

DOG OWNER THREE: I definitely do think they know right from wrong.

DAVID POGUE: Scientists are generally much more skeptical than pet owners. But recently, researchers have started taking this question seriously, and a slew of new studies on different kinds of creatures has been tackling the question, "Do animals have morals?.

The results might surprise you.

First up, one of the most popular pieces of evidence offered up by pet owners.

DOG OWNER FOUR: I think she can understand right from wrong, because if she did something wrong, she has that guilty look on her face.

DAVID POGUE: Ah, yes, the guilty look.

DENVER'S OWNER: Denver! Did you do this? You got into the kitty cat's treats.

DAVID POGUE: This video has been seen over 20 million times on YouTube.

DENVER'S OWNER: Are you sorry about it.

DAVID POGUE: But what is Denver really thinking? Does that pitiful look on her face really mean that she actually feels guilty.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ (Barnard College, Columbia University): It's really effective, I mean, it's a cute look. It's a definite real look.

DAVID POGUE: Scientists like Alexandra Horowitz, who runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University, are skeptical. Horowitz wanted to know what the famous "guilty look" really meant.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: Does the guilty look in dogs mean that they're actually guilty? And it's all about whether dogs have an understanding of right or wrong.

DAVID POGUE: To try to find out, she devised a clever, and, I have to say, pretty sneaky, experiment.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: Put it by your toes.

DAVID POGUE: First, she has the dog's owner place a treat on the floor and tell the dog not to eat it.

CODY'S OWNER: Stay. Leave it.

DAVID POGUE: Then she has the owner leave the room. With the owner safely out of sight, Horowitz has me grab the treat and then lie to the owner.

Okay, you can come in. He ate it.

CODY'S OWNER: You ate it? I told you not to eat it.

DAVID POGUE: Forget the dog, I feel guilty.

CODY'S OWNER: Cody! I told you not to eat it.

DAVID POGUE: Even though Cody has done nothing wrong, there's that look.

CODY'S OWNER: Can you look at me? Yeah you don't want to.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: You really have to direct her not to eat it.

DAVID POGUE: Horowitz repeated this experiment with other dogs and their owners.

DOG OWNER FIVE: Bad.

DAVID POGUE: And the results were clear.

DOG OWNER SIX: No.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: "Here's the face I have to give when somebody's yelling at me." And does this indicate that that dog felt that he was guilty.

FINN'S OWNER: Finn! No.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: No, it doesn't. It indicates that that dog knows how to react to that owner.

DAVID POGUE: In other words, these dogs aren't fessing up to anything. They're just reacting to a scolding.

You make it sound like we're sort of being played.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: Well they're learning what works with us.

DOG OWNER SEVEN: No, bad boy.

DAVID POGUE: Does that mean that dogs can't know the difference between right and wrong.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: I think it doesn't make any sense to pretend that they understand our moral terms. And I think it's really important to mark a difference between a dog's moral sense and our moral sense and realize they're not working on our terms.

DAVID POGUE: So in this case, even though we might be projecting our values onto our dogs, that doesn't mean that they can't have their own moral sense.

Hey, good girl.

In fact, in the last decade, a growing number of new studies are showing us that many animals, not just dogs, do seem to have a capacity for rudimentary moral behavior, to feel empathy and help each other out in ways we used to think were uniquely human. And, in the process, they're giving us new insights into the roots of our own morality.

BRIAN HARE: Why are humans moral? What is morality? Where does it come from? Well, we go study animals, and they can tell us a lot about the answer to that question.

DAVID POGUE: Friederike Range would agree. She's testing dogs, here at the University of Vienna, in Austria, and suspects humans aren't the only species with a sense of fairness.

FRIEDERIKE RANGE (University of Vienna): Hi.

DAVID POGUE: I'm David.

FRIEDERIKE RANGE: Friederike. Nice to meet you.

DAVID POGUE: Nice to meet you.

FRIEDERIKE RANGE: This is Guinness.

DAVID POGUE: Range is about to teach me how to conduct a simple experiment to test whether dogs have a sense of fairness.

Paw.

At first, I just ask Guinness for her paw….

Paw.

…and give her nothing in return.

Paw. Paw. Paw. Paw. Paw.

We do it 30 times, without a problem.

Paw.

That a girl.

Then Range brings in Guinness's pal, Toddy.

Paw.

Now I ask both to give me their paws. But, when Toddy does it, I give him a tasty treat.

Just as before, Guinness gets nothing.

Paw.

Paw. To the good little boy….

And Paw.

At first, Guinness keeps it up, but after seeing Toddy get rewarded for doing the same thing, she starts to whimper and then goes on strike.

Paw.

Range has done the same experiment with dozens of dogs and seen exactly the same result. She believes it's evidence that dogs know when they're being wronged.

If you could write a script for the sorts of things that they're thinking, what would it be.

FRIEDERIKE RANGE: One possibility is, yes, "It isn't fair. He's getting food, and I don't. Why should I work for free while he's getting rewarded?" It's really difficult to avoid the word "fairness..

DAVID POGUE: Other experiments—with ravens, elephants, chimps and monkeys—are suggesting that we may share moral traits, like fairness, with other species.

BRIAN HARE: What's really exciting about these studies is this is sort of the first evidence that animals may have a rudimentary, simple form of fairness that then, maybe, through evolutionary time, has then been built upon and has become more complex in our own species.

DAVID POGUE: So it's one thing to know when you're being treated unfairly, but what about apparently selfless acts, like sharing with complete strangers.

This is Vienna sausage.

FRIEDERIKE RANGE: Yeah. You can have a piece.

BRIAN HARE: People, including myself, would've probably predicted that this is something that only humans do.

DAVID POGUE: That's what Brian Hare, a primatologist at Duke University, used to think, until one day, when he got a call from his student, Suzy Kwetuenda, in the Congo, saying she thought bonobos, a type of great ape, might actually share.

BRIAN HARE: I was like, "Oh, come on, Suzy, there's no way." And she was really insistent. So I said, "Okay, well, let's do an experiment..

DAVID POGUE: So Hare and Kwetuenda set up a special situation for two bonobos. One, the stranger, was locked in a room with a key that could be turned only from the other side.

SUZY KWETUENDA: Sake! Sake, Eleke.

DAVID POGUE: The other, in this case, Sake, was free to wander around.

Then Kwetuenda places a pile of fruit pieces outside the locked room. Sake has a choice: she can eat all the food herself or open the door to release the strange bonobo she's never met and possibly give up some of her food.

BRIAN HARE: Think about it. You see somebody at the table next to you with no food, are you going to go up to the person that you don't know and say, "Hey, would you like to eat half of the food I just ordered?" You know, how many times have any of us done that.

DAVID POGUE: Will Sake open the door for the stranger and share the food.

BRIAN HARE: It's the closest thing that you can think of to doing charity in animals.

DAVID POGUE: So humans might not be the only ones capable of kindness to strangers. But what was Sake thinking? Did she feel sorry for the other bonobo? Was she feeling empathy.

BRIAN HARE: I can't really tell that. All I can tell you is that Sake didn't have to do that. Sake could have just eaten the food. It may be that bonobos just really enjoy eating together; it may not be empathy, in this case.

DAVID POGUE: Empathy. It's considered a uniquely human trait, explained here in the classic Funny Face.

FRED ASTAIRE (In Funny Face, 1957): …something like sympathy.

AUDREY HEPBURN (In Funny Face, 1957): Oh, it goes beyond sympathy. Sympathy is to understand what someone feels. Empathy is to project your imagination so that you actually feel what the other person is feeling.

DAVID POGUE: And to demonstrate that uniquely human trait, I've come here to Times Square to test it out for myself on the world's toughest crowd.

Let me out.

My kindly producers have shut me into a Plexiglas box that can be unlocked only from the outside. I'm totally helpless. Will my fellow human beings sense my distress and help me out.

Sure enough, after a few weird looks, my species comes through….

Thank you so much.

… over and over again.

Thank you! Thank you.

Would an animal ever do this.

The answer might come from the last creature you'd think to ask: rats.

At the University of Chicago, neuroscientist Peggy Mason is about to show me that empathy might not be just for humans.

PEGGY MASON: Are you going to be empathic today? Yeah.

DAVID POGUE: To test her idea, she's built a special predicament for two rats: one is trapped inside a Plexiglas tube, with a door that can be opened only from the outside. The other is free to run around, and he's never been taught how to open that door.

So you think that Free Rat is literally trying to set free Trapped Rat out of pure human concern.

PEGGY MASON: Or rat concern, as the case may be.

DAVID POGUE: Unbelievable. Look at that! He's trying to figure it out. What the heck.

Oh, my gosh.

And when they see their pal struggling, they certainly seem to work pretty darn hard to get their buddy out.

PEGGY MASON: He is pulling him out.

DAVID POGUE: Come on! He's like, "For crying out loud, I got you out, now bust out of here!.

Mason has run hundreds of rats through these set ups, and she's convinced it's the strongest experimental evidence, to date, of animal empathy.

PEGGY MASON: So, it's the first experiment where there's an action that is motivated by empathy. They're using empathic concern to actually help the other rat.

DAVID POGUE: So just how much do these rats really care? Mason wanted to find out, so she did a second experiment to give these rats a moral dilemma.

PEGGY MASON: What we did was we put two restrainers in the arena. And in one restrainer was the cage mate, and in the other restrainer was five chocolate chips. And these are rats that were eating, on average, seven chocolate chips in a sitting, so five chocolate chips, no problem.

DAVID POGUE: What will the free rat do? Will he hog all the chocolate to himself? Free the friend.

So, in theory, we've given Free Rat a choice.

PEGGY MASON: That's right.

DAVID POGUE: He can either let his pal out of the tube or go get a nice tasty snack. Hmm, checking out his pal. Oh, come on! He let the guy out first. Incredible.

Whoever gets there first is going to gobble it all up.

PEGGY MASON: Will they? Or will they share.

DAVID POGUE: They not smart enough to share. They're rats.

PEGGY MASON: They're nice, they share. So, on average, the free guy only eats three and half chocolates. There's five chocolates, so he's leaving one and half chocolates.

DAVID POGUE: I might have to think twice the next time I want to call someone a rat.

PEGGY MASON: Our study tells us a lot more about humans than it does about rats.

DAVID POGUE: Come on you guys! Somebody.

PEGGY MASON: And what I think it tells us about humans is that we are biologically mandated to be empathically concerned and helping.

BRIAN HARE: The more we're studying animals, what we're seeing is pieces of the moral system that we see in our own species. Now, no species has the whole package, but it basically tells us that our psychology, our brain, it didn't just appear out of thin air. It's actually built on something.

DAVID POGUE: Hello, New Yorkers. What am I, an animal.

Yeah, I am, and as long as my species treats me like one, it seems like I'll be just fine.

Oh, my gosh. Thank you very much! Elvis, ladies and gentleman.

Which animals will rescue others in need?
"Help me!"
Ants!
In one study, ants were tied up with nylon thread.
Other ants worked hard to free them…
…biting through the snares.
But…
only if they were related to the victims.
Ant altruisim…
…it's all in the family.

Credits

What Are Animals Thinking?

HOST
David Pogue
WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
Michael Bicks & Anna Lee Strachan

Laurie Santos Profile

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Tobey List

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0917517. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Image

(dog)
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Participants

Brian Hare
Duke University
Alexandra Horowitz
Barnard College, Columbia University
Peggy Mason
University of Chicago
Friederike Range
University of Vienna

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