Ever noticed your dog slink away after you’ve discovered she’s decimated a shoe?...left you a present on the Oriental rug?...stolen another dog’s biscuit? “I’m such a bad, bad dog and I deserve to go to my crate.”

How about when you feed one of your cats a larger amount than another and notice the despondency in the eyes of one who’s looking all hangdog over the inequity? “Hey, why’d she get all that wet stuff? How about me?”

In the past, we sort of assumed these behaviors were learned pack or pride “tricks” to get us to go easy on punishment or to feed them more, respectively. The interpretation of these behaviors as “embarrassment,” “sadness” and “regret” were deemed by many learned behaviorists to be the result of our tendency to anthropomorphize (inappropriately ascribe human feelings to animals). 

But now there’s some proof that we silly pet owners were right all along. Animals do appear to experience regret. In particular, when one animal gets a better treat than another, the one who finds himself lacking may truly feel wronged. So say Duke University neurobiologists in the last issue of Science. 

According to a pitch-perfect New York Times piece from last week,

The latest data comes from brain scans of monkeys trying to win a large prize of juice by guessing where it was hidden. When the monkeys picked wrongly and were shown the location of the prize, the neurons in their brain clearly registered what might have been...

...This is the first evidence that monkeys, like people, have ‘would-have, could-have, should-have’ thoughts,” said Ben Hayden, one of the researchers. Another of the authors, Michael Platt, noted that the monkeys reacted to their losses by shifting their subsequent guesses, just like humans who respond to a missed opportunity by shifting strategy.

It sort of makes sense, right? In a pack or pride, one must abide by the rules, but it doesn’t mean one has to like it or handle an inequitable interaction the same way twice. If feeling regret gives you a leg up on getting the better bit of meat or the better mate next time then it makes sense that animal brains would adapt in a way that tattoos unpleasant events with indelible emotions rather than fleeting reactions. 

Dr. Platt goes on to offer an explanation:

I can well imagine that regret would be highly advantageous evolutionarily, so long as one doesn’t obsess over it, as in depression...A monkey lacking in regret might act like a psychopath or a simian Don Quixote.

Tilting at windmills with base reactivity is what Dr. Platt seems to reject in his argument. True emotion is what solidifies an experience, therefore it makes sense to assume that animals may feel a wide array of emotions similar to ours––as long as they confer some sort of evolutionary advantage. 

So you know, this notion is somewhat contrary to the body of behavioral research that considers individual behavioral adaptation, as in basic behavioral conditioning, to be the primary way animals learn. Sort of like a behavioral Lamarckism built from a collection of automatic reactions rather than the Darwinistic evolution this new research proposes. 

Again, thanks to the New York Times piece, here’s a blurb from a psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin who explains,

It’s possible that this kind of social signal in animals could have evolved without the conscious experience of regret...But it seems more plausible that there is some kind of conscious experience even if it’s not the same kind of thing that you or I feel.

Clearly, there’s still lots of hedging in play when it comes to animal emotions. That they’re really not like ours. That animal emotions are wishful thinking on the part of pet owners and other animal lovers. 

Indeed, animal feelings on par with humans’ are still largely discounted as anthropomorphism by the scientific community––likely because of our inability to measure them, but also because we humans have been loath to ascribe human-style feelings to animals. This, born of religious beliefs that assume human supremacy and/or potential guilt over our subjugation of animals (as in agriculture settings), in my estimation. 

Yet many of us who live with animals find it difficult to reconcile what we can know, scientifically, with what we experience on a regular basis. We believe animals feel. And we don’t take it on faith as we must when we question whether there’s a God, for example. No, we believe it because we can see the evidence before us in our animal companions. 

Is it wishful thinking? To my mind, it’s as much so as when humans assumed animals experienced pain differently than we did. And we all know where that led us.