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Empathic birds


Raven observers show emotional contagion with raven demonstrators experiencing an unpleasant affect

To effectively navigate the social world, we need information about each other’s emotions. Emotional contagion has been suggested to facilitate such information transmission, constituting a basic building block of empathy that could also be present in non-human animals. Most animal studies have faced difficulties in measuring the emotional valence in contagion. A collaboration between cognitive biologists and social neuroscientists at University of Vienna solves this problem by integrating behavioral and psychological methods. They show that ravens observing a conspecific in a negative emotional state subsequently perform in a pessimistic manner on a judgment task. The results of this study have been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

An interdisciplinary team at University of Vienna led by Prof. Thomas Bugnyar of the Department of Cognitive Biology and Prof. Claus Lamm of the Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods, set out to test emotional contagion in captive ravens that were familiar with participating in behavioral experiments. Researchers induced a positive or negative affective state in a demonstrator raven, by allowing the bird to spy at a highly preferred or not preferred food through a peep hole. Another raven observed the demonstrator’s behavioral expressions to the types of food without being able to see the food itself. Before and after the observation, these ravens were tested in a cognitive bias paradigm, in which they were asked to judge ambiguous stimuli. This paradigm allows measuring the valence (positive or negative) of affective states, rather than only the affective arousal. Observers showed a pessimistic judgment after having seen the demonstrator expressing frustration-like behaviors, but they did not execute any of these behaviors themselves. These findings suggest that ravens can pick up on the others’ negative emotional state and show emotional contagion in the absence of behavioral contagion.

Lead-author Jessie Adriaense underlines the importance of studying animal emotions, “Scientific research on animal emotions is often received with skepticism. Research has advanced and we no longer follow the idea that emotions are less important than for example cognitive skills. Just like humans, animals are driven and motivated by their emotional states, which is reflected in their cognitive performance and behavioral expressions. Although it remains a challenging research endeavor, this study demonstrates we’re heading in the right direction”.

In addition, Jessie emphasizes that the new combination of methods used to experimentally demonstrate emotional contagion in birds should be applicable to a wide range of species. “Now that we know how it works, we can apply it to various animals. Getting to that stage was difficult, though, and we strongly profited from the interdisciplinary collaboration across faculties and research fields”. The research has been fostered by the Cognitive Science Research Platform, a network of researchers funded by the University of Vienna. “I am glad that I took the opportunity offered by the Cognitive Science Platform. It clearly paid off, as our findings provide an important stepping stone towards understanding the evolution of empathy”, she adds.

Publication in "PNAS"
Adriaense, J.E.C., Martin, J.S., Schiestl, M., Lamm, C. & Bugnyar, T. Negative emotional contagion and cognitive bias in common ravens (Corvus corax). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Scientific contacts

Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Thomas Bugnyar
Department of Cognitive Biology
University of Vienna
1090 Vienna, Althanstraße 14
T +43-664-60277-76112

Press contact

Stephan Brodicky
Press office, University of Vienna
Research and Teaching
1010 Vienna, Universitätsring 1
T +43-1-4277-175 41
M +43-664-602 77-175 41