Humans, as a species, are always reading social signals to figure out what’s going on and guess what might happen next.
Possessing the ability to determine if another individual, whether human or animal, is happy, ready to become violent, or simply paying attention might have significant evolutionary benefits.
Now, a new paper in PLOS ONE by the DogStudies research group at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology and colleagues from Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, and the University of Leipzig shows that humans are better than chance at judging interactions between humans, dogs, and monkeys, but we have trouble predicting aggressive behavior in both dogs and humans.
Researchers presented 92 participants 27 videos of non-verbal interactions between human toddlers, dogs, or macaques to test their social judgment. The participants were divided into two groups: the first group was tasked with classifying the interactions as either fun, neutral, or hostile, while the second group was tasked with predicting the result of each encounter.
Participants did better than chance at classifying interactions between all species, and they were right about the results of 50–80% of interactions. But the accuracy of groupings and predictions depended on both the species and the social setting in which the interaction took place.
Contrary to what the experimenters thought, the people who took part in the study were not better at judging human interactions than those of other species. Additionally, they fared particularly badly when confronted with hostile encounters between people and dogs.
Researchers thought that participants would be best at judging aggressive situations, since recognizing aggression in dogs and people could help people avoid getting hurt or even dying. However, this study shows that people are not as good at judging aggressive situations as they thought.
“It is possible that we are biased to assume good intentions from other humans and from ‘man’s best friend’,” adds first author Theresa Epperlein. “Perhaps this bias prevents us from recognizing aggressive situations in these species.”
“Our results underscore the fact that social interactions can often be ambiguous,” adds senior author Juliane Bräuer, “and suggest that accurately predicting outcomes may be mo
Even though the current study tells us a lot about how well people can read social situations, it also makes us wonder how we do it and if we can get better with practice, even though previous studies have shown that experience doesn’t always lead to better results. To answer these questions, more research needs to be done to find out what cues humans use when watching interactions, such as sounds, facial expressions, and body language, and how different species use those cues.
Image Credit: Getty