Do animals feel and use shame? An open scientific debate

In the vast world of animals on the Internet, there is a trend that has been going viral for years. These are these images of dogs and cats, in particular, next to handwritten signs that “confess”: “I did it”.

Next to these and their appropriate faces, a plate of food on the floor, a shredded clothes press, a swollen sofa cushion or a pee where it shouldn’t be.

This content generates, among other things, another trend, but in this case, a tendency towards interpretation: the humanization of animals by placing them in the categories in which we live. The result is constant confusion about the very science that studies the behavior of non-humans. One of the most repeated seems to be, precisely, that of shame. Beyond a few posters, looking at them in the face, can dogs really experience this feeling?

Questions about the inner workings of the minds of other animals have always existed, as researcher Stephen T. Newmyer explains in a 2012 article in the Journal of Animal Ethicsrecalling that this had already led the Greek and Roman philosophers of Antiquity to be obsessed with the search for the qualities possessed by “the human being among animals”, an altogether laconic way of observing them.

There is controversy

Jack Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in the United States, insists on observation. “Given the situations in which we would say that a human feels shame, there is no reason to think that a non-human could not also feel this emotion,” he said in an interview for Living room.

Author of the books The Emotional Lives of Animals and Dogs Demystified, Bekoff has written extensively on the internal states of animals. For this evolutionary biologist, “it is difficult to imagine that social animals do not have the capacity to feel shame.”

Like him, other scientists are considering this line of study by recognizing guilt as a tool for strengthening social relationships and minimizing the effects of transgressions towards social partners. One of them, Charles Darwin himself, observed that certain behaviors that we associate with guilt in human beings are also found in other social species of non-human primates: keeping the head down, turning away the glance….

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Aren’t they embarrassed?

The same patterns were later observed in wolves and domestic dogs, but some point out that this is not so much a reaction in this sense as the result of the learning process to which the dogs were subjected to achieve the relationship they have with us today. “The dog has learned that when evidence of bad behavior is visible and the owner appears, negative things can happen, such as a reprimand or punishment,” suggested Stanley Coren, professor emeritus in the psychology department of the University of British Columbia and also an author of articles on animals, in an article for Psychology Today.

A few years later, in 2018, an article titled “Your dog feels no shame” appeared in The Atlantic. Its author, William Brennan, noted that “the guilty look is probably a submissive response that has proven beneficial because it reduces conflict between dog and human.”

A group of canine cognition researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, conducted research on the topic in 2012. Led by Julie Hecht, the results are published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.

Do animals feel and use shame?

The door remains open

Julie Hecht’s team started from the hypothesis that when a dog is scolded, a guilty look could simply serve to reduce the duration of this negative social interaction. The researchers therefore designed an experiment to answer two questions. The first: would dogs that had behaved badly in the absence of their master behave differently from dogs that had not behaved badly when they greeted their master? The second: can owners determine, by entering a room and based solely on the dog’s greeting behavior, the effect of that behavior?

To do this, the researchers determined the basic greeting behavior of each of the sixty-four participating dogs when they were reunited with their owner after a brief separation. They then made the dogs understand that the food placed on a table was intended for humans and not for dogs. The dogs were then left alone in the room where the food was located. The conclusion of this study was that “the obedience or disobedience of dogs had nothing to do with whether or not they displayed a ‘guilty look’”.

However, Bekoff and others prefer to be less direct on an issue that remains complex. What we do know is that dog brain structures are similar to those of humans. “I think what’s happening in their case is that the shame of guilt is probably present in them in some way, but it may not be so much about self-consciousness as ‘to a collective phenomenon’. The door therefore remains open.