How to think about emotions

Emotions can be a tricky subject. What is an emotion? Do animals have emotions the same way people do? Do emotions cause behavior? Is it important to pay attention to our animals’ emotions during training?

We’ve had some discussion about emotions recently in the Listen and Learn online course (link). Emotions also made an appearance in last week’s episode of the Equiosity podcast, which featured a conversation between Alexandra Kurland, Cindy Martin, and me. (You can find that podcast episode here.) 

So, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about emotions, and I wanted to share some of these thoughts in this blog post. 

(Update: This turned into a two-part post. Part 2 discusses starting off on the right emotion.)

Emotions vs. emotional behavior

Many people think that behavior analysts deny the existence of emotions. This is certainly not the case. 

B. F. Skinner believed that emotions, thoughts, and feelings DID exist. However, what makes emotions, thoughts and feelings both special and difficult is that they are private events. That is, an emotion can only be experienced by the individual who has the emotion. 

Emotions are tricky to measure and study since the outside world can’t directly observe a person or animal’s emotions. For example, I can see if you are walking, running or standing still. I could even measure how many steps you walked or how fast you were running. However, I can’t directly measure how tired you are after running a mile or how excited you are if you win a race. 

You could describe your emotions to me. But, I wouldn’t know if an emotion that you describe is really the same as what I feel or what another person feels. Also, I wouldn’t know if you were describing your emotions truthfully and accurately. 

However, instead of trying to deal with emotions directly, we can study what are called emotional behaviors. These are all of the observable behaviors that lead us to identify a particular emotion. 

For example, I will never know what my horse’s fear actually feels like. However, I can hear him snort, I can measure that his heart rate increased, and I can see his head go up, his eyes widen, and his nostrils tremble. These are all things I can observe and measure. 

As another example, take a look at the picture below of the piglet and the cat. We’ll never know exactly what either of these critters is feeling. However, there are lots of observable behaviors that may lead you to conclude that the cat and pig feel very differently about this situation!

Do emotions cause behavior?

In casual conversation, emotions are often used as causes for behavior. They may also be used to describe an animal’s personality and to explain an animal’s overall patterns of behavior. 

For example, a person may say that her dog growls and snaps at new people because he is fearful. This explanation puts the cause for the growling and snapping inside the animal and may lead the person to decide that she has a “fearful” dog.

Here are some more examples that you might hear in everyday conversation that use emotions as causes for behavior: 

  • The man smiled because he was happy.
  • The child would not make her bed because she was angry. 
  • The horse pawed and whinnied because he was upset. 

However, if you use emotions as causes for behavior, you still have to explain why the emotion happened. For example, the child would not make her bed because she was angry. But, why was she angry in the first place? 

So, behavior analysts prefer to take a different approach. They look for events in the environment that caused both the behavior and the emotion.

For example, instead of saying that a dog’s fear causes him to growl, you could look for events that came before and after the growl. Perhaps a young visitor cornered the dog because she really wanted to pet the dog. The dog growled, and the child backed off and left the dog alone. These circumstances created conditions that led BOTH to body language that could be labeled as fearful and to the dog growling. 

You may be wondering if this shift in thinking is important. I think it is. Thinking this way helps you look more carefully for things in the environment that are influencing both your animal’s behavior and emotions.

It also will help you see more flexibility in your animal’s behavior. If you decide your dog is a “fearful” dog, you may be resigned to live with this label. Instead, if you identify the triggers and consequences that contribute to his fear, it will be easier for you to help him stay calm and to start teaching him new behaviors.

Noticing emotions and using them for information

Emotions don’t cause behavior. However, it’s still really important to be aware of them. When you notice emotional behaviors, you can use them to gauge how your animal is feeling at the moment, to assess how your training is going, and to make decisions about when to change things. 

I would encourage you to pay close attention to changes in your animal’s emotional behavior. When you see changes, try to figure out what caused them. 

If they are changes you like, take note, so you can try to produce these emotional behaviors in the future. If they are changes you don’t like, what can you adjust so that your animal can return to being happy and relaxed?

It’s easy to notice big changes in emotional behavior. However, you may sometimes miss smaller changes. For example, perhaps your animal keeps participating in the training session, but he starts grabbing the treats a little more roughly from your hand. It’s important to notice these smaller changes so that you can do something about them before they become bigger changes. 

I encourage you to spend some time this week looking for changes in your animal’s emotional behavior. Then, be a detective. Try to see if you can figure out what events in the environment led to these changes. 

Learn more about emotions:

  • Starting off on the right emotion: After writing this post, I kept thinking about emotions! So, I wrote a second post about emotions the week after this post.
  • Equiosity podcast Episode 102: This podcast episode is a conversation between Alexandra Kurland, Cindy Martin, and me. We talk about the process of reinforcement, jackpots, treatless clicks, emotions and emotional behavior, and much more.
  • The scientific case for emotional feelings in animals: These are my notes from Dr. Jaak Panksepp’s keynote address at the 2014 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference.
  • Behavior analysis and emotions lecture: This is a lecture that Dr. Joe Layng gave at the 2016 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. It is available for purchase on the ASAT website.
  • Listen and Learn audio course: If you’re interested in learning more about the science of behavior and how it relates to training, check out the new online course that I created with Alexandra Kurland and Dominique Day.

Spanish translation: This post is available in Spanish from edogtorial. Thank you Nuria Frances for the translation!

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