Do animals feel guilt?

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When your dog looks at you with those big sad eyes, is he guilty or is he just aware that you're angry with him? And can animals, on their own, develop a sense of guilt for what they do to other animals? We take a look at a few experiments that examine these questions.


When we talk about "guilt" applying to animals we are looking for two things. The first is that the animals knows some action is wrong. The second is that the animal cares, even a little bit, about doing the wrong thing. The favored animals used for experiments in this kind of thing are dogs, because they are on hand, and because the years that their owners have spent training them to recognize some behavior as deserving of praise and some behavior as deserving of censure. This makes the experiment conducted on them just a little bit sad.

Not too sad. A series of experiments was done on dogs and their owners. First the dogs and owners were put in a lab room. The owners walked out for a time and came in again, greeting the dog as they did. This established a basic procedure. Next the dogs were shown that, though food was placed on a table in the room, they were not allowed to eat it. Only their owners ate at the table. That established a rule.

Next were two tests. In the first, the owner put a piece of food on the table and left the room. The dog could eat the food or not. In the second, the food was left by the owner, but taken by a researcher, and the dog didn't get a chance to eat it. When the owners came back in the room, they were either told that the dogs had eaten the food or hadn't, regardless of whether the dog had or not. Then they either scolded or greeted the dog.

The first test was on the owner. Could they tell if their dog had eaten the food? About seventy-five percent of owners were right. Researchers thought, though, that this might be as a result of their knowing their dog's previous behavior. If a dog steals food every chance it gets at home, it won't act too differently in a lab.

When scolded, both groups were equally as likely to act guilty. So far it looked like dogs had no sense of guilty. However, during the third test, when the dogs weren't even given a chance to eat the food. The ones who had eaten the food before were more likely to act guilty when being greeted by their owners than the innocent ones. This could be interpreted as evidence of guilt, or it could be interpreted as having learned that food plus returning owner means scolding, while innocent dogs may have had no idea at all why they were being scolded in the first place.

In the end, we can't know what goes on in an animal's mind. There has been some research that shows that animals have a sense of morality. One researcher noticed that rats, when showed that whenever they ate an entirely separate group of rats were shocked with electricity, didn't eat even when they were hungry. Others documented that wolves seemed to be extremely gentle with weaker wolves when playing, and would make amends - by stressing that they were only playing - when biting too hard. Which situation do you think is correct? Which do you want to be correct? And - are you a dog owner?

On this week's show, we talked about Guilty Pleasures. While we're not eating other people's food, we are trashing other people's microwaves and talking about how we like Big Bang Theory and vampires. Take a look!


Top Image: Great Sea

Via Scientific American and Life's Little Mysteries.




I don't know. I think dogs are capable of feeling shame, but not guilt. Meaning they understand they're in trouble for something they did which upset you and can be sheepish in the moment— but don't feel a lasting sense of moral ambiguity about their actions. It doesn't weight on their conscience. Cats in my experience feel neither shame nor guilt— only "getting caught" versus "getting away with it." But they're not pack animals.