A 2017 study shows that dogs judge humans by how they treat others. Previous studies have shown that babies, by the age of one, are already starting to judge people by how they interact. This indicates that babies have an innate morality that comes before being taught by their parents.
Researchers at Kyoto University wanted to test whether species, other than humans, make social evaluations based on how people interact.
James Anderson, comparative psychologist at Kyoto University, and his team, began testing whether capuchin monkeys would show a preference for people who help others.
The capuchins watched an actor struggle to open a container with a toy inside. The actor gave the container to another actor who would either help or refuse to help. Afterwards both actors offered each capuchin monkey some food, and each monkey had to choose from which actor to accept the food.
When the actor was helpful, the monkeys showed no preference between accepting food from the person who could not open the container and the helper. But when the actor refused to help, the monkeys more often took food from the person who could not open the container (the struggler).
The researchers tested dogs, and whether dogs preferred people who helped their owners. Each owner tried to open a container before giving it to one of two actors. Actor A either helped or not, while Actor B remained passive. The two actors then offered the dogs a reward and the dogs had to choose which actor to accept the reward from.
The dogs had no preference when Actor A helped their owners, but were more likely to choose the passive actor if Actor A refused to help their owners.
Anderson thinks the results show that monkeys and dogs make social evaluations in a similar way to human infants. ‘If someone is behaving anti-socially they probably end up with some sort of emotional reaction to it.’
The long relationship dogs have with people may mean that they’ve evolved to be extremely sensitive to people’s behaviours. And people’s sense of morality may even have roots in these sorts of primitive evaluations of others.
‘I think that in humans there may be this basic sensitivity towards anti-social behaviour in others. Then through growing up, inculturation and teaching, it develops into a full-blown sense of morality,’ said Anderson.
Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.01.003