Intelligent Design

Animal minds: Humans project guilt feelings onto their dogs?

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In “Dogs’ ‘guilty’ behavior may be owners’ projection” (Seattle Times, July 3, 2009), Rob Stein reports that the “”guilty look dogs display may not be evidence that the dog is aware of guilt:

Horowitz asked each owner to show the dog a biscuit, instruct the dog not to eat it and leave the room. While the owner was gone, Horowitz either allowed the dog to eat the treat or removed it. The owner returned and was told the dog had obeyed the command or had been disobedient and had eaten the biscuit. Owners scolded the disobedient dogs. But half the time, the owners were told the truth about whether their dog had misbehaved while the other half were misled.

And this is the surprising thing: The dogs that had obeyed were just as likely as the ones that did not to exhibit one of nine behaviors associated with the “guilty look”: dropping their head, pulling their ears back, avoiding eye contact, rolling over onto their side or back, dropping their tails, quickly wagging a lowered tail, licking their lips, offering a paw or slinking away.

Horowitz found that the pooches were most likely to show such behaviors when their owner believed they had disobeyed and scolded them.

“The most guilty look was when the owner scolded an innocent dog,” she said. “It was a bit surprising.”

Really, it’s not all that surprising if we keep one thing in mind: The dog’s primary concern is to stay in good with his people. He lets them make the rules about life with humans. And he is never going to feel more guilty than when he doesn’t even know what he did wrong.

Horowitz stressed that her experiment “doesn’t mean dogs don’t feel guilty. When they are playing together, they have a code of behavior and can distinguish right from wrong. … But I can’t claim to know what they are feeling.”

Horowitz concluded that such behavior is most likely the result of subtle cues that dogs picked up from their owners that make them anticipate punishment, rather than the dogs feeling guilty.

I always suggest that people who think there’s no trick to understanding animal minds begin with “What is it like to be a bat?” by philosopher Thomas Nagel, if only to get some sense of the questions we want to know the answers to.

See also: Rooks in captivity show more tool using feats, and many other animan minds stories at The Hack.

7 Replies to “Animal minds: Humans project guilt feelings onto their dogs?

  1. 1
    Anthony09 says:

    This article interested me too when I read it. May I ask what it has to do with ID (i.e. why it has been published here)?

  2. 2
    O'Leary says:

    Anthony09, the relationship between animal and human minds is often used to attempt to cast a theory of mind, which is relevant to ID.

    98% chimpanzee and all that, you know.

    It’s important to observe the real limits.

  3. 3
    Anthony09 says:

    Ah, thanks for the explanation. So I fail to see how this problematizes anything relating to theory of mind that is relevant to evolution/ID. No one on the evolution side would have any sort of a problem with this finding. Care to explain (rather than dropping vague hints)?

  4. 4
    Jason Rennie says:

    This doesn’t surprise me. Although I know dogs do exhibit other human like behaviors. My parents old dog had selective deafness down perfectly. Call her all you wanted as loud and you wanted and she wouldn’t always come, unless she wanted to. Quietly crinkle a bit of plastic (like opening a packet of something) and the dog has the hearing of superman and the speed of the flash.

  5. 5
    vjtorley says:


    You wrote:

    No one on the evolution side would have any sort of a problem with this finding. Care to explain (rather than dropping vague hints)?

    What the article above suggests is that there are ineed some discontinuities between human minds and the minds of other animals. The “guilt” dogs feel is likely to be of a very different sort from the guilt humans feel.

    In the story above, the fact that dogs behave in exactly the same way even when they have been obedient demands an explanation. It would seem to suggest that we have been anthropomorphising canine behavior.

    Probably the dog is not thinking to itself, “My master’s going to think that I ate the biscuit, so I’m done for.” That would mean ascribing second-order beliefs (beliefs about other agents’ beliefs) to the dog, which is a pretty tall order for a species that lacks a language with terms denoting abstract concepts (like “believe”).

    Another possibility is that the dog has a primitive concept of “want.” Unlike “believe,” the concept “want” can be more or less cashed out in purely behavioral terms. To a first approximation, at least, “A wants B” could be reduced to “A often pursues B.” (Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification, which doesn’t do justice to cases where what we do is at odds with what we say we want, but let’s leave that for now.) So perhaps the dog is thinking, “My master wants that biscuit. Now it’s gone. He’s going to be mad. When he’s mad, he often scolds me, so I’m done for.” Here the dog is ascribing a primitive want to his master (“My master wants that biscuit”) and making two associations: missing biscuit = mad master, and mad master = I’m done for.

    However, even this may be a little too abstract for Fido, as it involves ascribing to the dog a belief about a missing object. Ascribing negative beliefs to a dog is highly problematic, as it is not easy to see how a dog could have such beliefs without an abstract language. Think about it. If dogs have such an abstract concept, where could they possibly pick it up? Only from other dogs. They must use it when communicating with each other, as we do. Now ask yourself this. Of all the yips, yaps, barks, whines and growls a dog makes, which one corresponds to the concept of “not”?

    Another possibility is that the dog might envisage its interaction with its master in transactional terms, like the game of “Fetch.” “Master’s move: throw the stick. My move: bring it back. What’s his next move going to be? Throw the stick, I suppose. This is fun!” In similar terms, the dog may be thinking something along the lines of: “Master’s move: ‘Don’t touch the biscuit. I’ll be back!’ My move: sit and wait for master’s return, and then say, ‘Look, master, here’s your ….’ Whoa! Where did the biscuit go? I can’t make that move any more! Help! Now I’m done for!”

    It might be objected that this scenario still involves the dog having the concept of “don’t,” which still sounds rather abstract. However, I would argue that the concept of “don’t,” unlike the logical operator “not,” can easily be expressed in body language that a dog could understand. “Don’t!” is a prohibition.

    We should also maintain a healthy skepticism of recent claims that crows must be capable of abstract reasoning, because they can fashion a hook from a straight piece of wire, to get a piece of meat which lies out of reach. For one of the hallmarks of rationality is that it is critical, and another hallmark is that the agent whose actions are criticized should be able to justify him/herself. These features are not something added on to rationality, as if we first learn to reason and only afterwards learn to respond to other people’s criticisms of our thinking. No: rationality is essentially self-justifying from the outset, or it is not reason at all. The belief that something (such as a hook) will get you what you want does not qualify as a rational belief unless you can say why it will.

    Now ask yourself this. Can one bird critique another’s work? And can the other bird rebut criticisms of its actions? Can we even imagine a dialogue like the following one, between crows?

    A: Hmmm. Not a bad first attempt, Max. But I’d bend that hook a little further round at the end if I were you, or the meat will probably slip off the hook before it reaches your mouth. Try again.

    B: My hook should be able to lift this little morsel. It’s only a tiny worm – not like the big one you picked up yesterday! I don’t think my worm will slip off!

    Do crows talk like this? Not likely!

    Readers wishing to keep track of developments in the field of research into animal minds might like to have a look at Moti Nissani’s Web page at , which has some very interesting articles.

    Of course, it remains possible that some non-human animals do indeed think, choose and act morally. However, I think we would be well-advised to take claims of animal rationality, choice and morality with a large grain of salt.

    Dogs are our friends. They are highly sociable animals, and they know how to play by the rules. But that’s a very different thing from questioning the rules. And if they can’t do that, then they can do no wrong, morally speaking – and they can do no right, either. Which makes us humans pretty special.

    The scientific investigation of animal minds is one area where Darwinism, with its emphasis on continuity, might impede rather than accelerate the progress of science. For Darwinists, there is a temptation to believe in the existence of a sliding scale of rationality, choice and morality. I would argue that on the contrary, there are real cognitive discontinuities in the natural world. An animal is either capable of having second-order beliefs or it’s not. Not having that capability severely limits the range of actions that the animal can meaningfully be said to perform.

    Granted, there are certainly some rational thoughts that a genius like Einstein was capable of having, and that I will probably never be capable of having. However, rationality itself doesn’t come in halves. One either has it or one doesn’t. Ditto free will and morality.

    Most supporters of ID grasp this principle well. And of course the existence of sharp cognitive discontinuities in nature does not prove Darwinism false. (One could alwys hypothesize that these abilities magically emerge when the brain reaches some critical level of complexity.) However, the existence of sharp cognitive discontinuities does remove one reason for thinking that Darwinism true, as a comprehensive account of who and what we are.

  6. 6
    Anthony09 says:

    Of course there are some discontinuities between human minds and animal minds. Everyone knows that, including those who subscribe to the theory of evolution.

    But you yourself gave the reason why: as you are less rational than Einstein, dogs are far less rational than us. But regardless of how you describe it, it is a difference of quantity rather than quality. It isn’t as if humans are either capable of rational thought or not. Some humans are more capable of it than others. So follow the obvious logic: go backwards to other animals and the continuum continues.

    This article, alas, doesn’t support your points in any intelligible way.

  7. 7
    vjtorley says:


    Thank you for your post. I don’t know whether you read the lecture, “Can Animals Think?” on Moti Nissani’s Web page, but it suggests that humans may be the only animals with a Theory of Mind. Now I realize that this is still a highly controversial issue, but let’s suppose that Nissani’s tentative suggestion is correct. What follows?

    Humans are aware of other minds. Other animals have no idea that other minds even exist. I’d call that a qualitative difference, not a quantitative one. In fact, I’d call it a gaping metaphysical abyss.

    Some humans – e.g. salespeople – are much better at reading people’s minds than the rest of us are. I’d call that a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. It’s an interesting fact, but it doesn’t particularly impress me or bother me.

    You wrote:

    This article [on dogs that act guilty], alas, doesn’t support your points in any intelligible way.

    Respectfully, I disagree. It suggests that we have been guilty of anthropomorphism in ascribing to dogs a capacity for second-order beliefs (beliefs about other agents’ beliefs). It seems that dogs may lack such a sophisticated capacity. Once again, I’d call that a qualitative difference, not a quantitative one.

    Finally, I’d like to cite the writings of a well-known atheist and evolutionist, Jason Rosenhouse, author of a savage critique of Jerry Coyne’s negative review of Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution. Rosenhouse faults Coyne for taking a number of cheap shots at ID, which Behe could easily rebut if he wanted to.

    [Quote from Coyne, mocking Behe’s Designer]

    So what scientific reason can there be for singling out just one species as the Designer’s goal?

    [Rosenhouse’s reply]
    There is only one species with the intelligence to contemplate a relationship with God. That’s why we might single out just one species.

    Rosenhouse is an atheist, but he gets it. People are special in a way that animals are not.

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