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Cognitive bias as an indicator of animal emotion and welfare: emerging evidence and underlying mechanisms. (Special Issue: Animal suffering and welfare.)

By M. Mendl, O. H. P. Burman, R. M. A. Parker, E. S. Paul

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Accurate assessment of animal emotion (affect) is an important goal in animal welfare science, and in areas such as neuroscience and psychopharmacology. Direct measures of conscious emotion are not available, so assessment of animal affect has relied on measures of the behavioural and physiological components of affective states. These are important indicators but have some limitations (e.g. measuring emotional arousal rather than valence (positivity vs negativity)). Human psychology research suggests that changes in cognitive function (information processing) can also be reliable indicators of emotional state (especially valence). For example, people in negative states attend to threats, retrieve negative memories, and make negative judgements about ambiguous stimuli more than happier people. Here we review a new research area investigating the possibility that such affect-induced 'cognitive biases' also occur in animals. We focus on a novel 'judgement bias' paradigm in which animals are trained that one cue predicts a positive event and another cue predicts a less positive/negative event, and are then presented with ambiguous (intermediate) cues. The hypothesis is that animals in a negative affective state will be more likely to respond to ('judge') these ambiguous cues as if they predict the negative event (a 'pessimistic' response), than animals in a more positive state. Recent studies of rats, dogs, rhesus monkeys, starlings and humans provide face-value support for this hypothesis. We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the affect manipulation treatments used in these studies, and the possibility that treatment-induced changes in feeding motivation, general activity and learning are responsible for the effects observed, and we consider whether the type of bias observed and the precise design of the judgement bias task can provide information about different types of affective state. Judgement biases may result from the influence of affect on decision-making processes including attention to and perception of the ambiguous cue, evaluation of the value and probability (expected utility) of the outcomes of different responses, and action selection. Affect might also modulate general tendencies of loss, risk and ambiguity aversion, hence biasing decisions. We discuss these possibilities in relation to theory and findings from neurobiological and psychological studies of decision-making, in order to better understand the potential mechanisms underlying judgement biases. We conclude with some specific recommendations for study design and interpretation, and suggestions for future research in this area.

Date 2009
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 118
Issue 3/4
Pages 161-181
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2009.02.023
Language English
Author Address Centre for Behavioural Biology, Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol, Langford House, Langford, BS40 5DU, UK.
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Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Activity
  2. Animal behavior
  3. Animal nutrition
  4. Animal rights
  5. Animal welfare
  6. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  7. Birds
  8. Carnivores
  9. Dogs
  10. Effect
  11. Evaluation
  12. Feeding
  13. Guidelines
  14. Indicators
  15. Information
  16. Information processing
  17. Macaques
  18. Mammals
  19. Mental health and well-being
  20. Monkeys
  21. peer-reviewed
  22. perceptions
  23. Pets and companion animals
  24. Primates
  25. Rats
  26. recommendations
  27. Research
  28. Rodents
  29. Studies
  1. peer-reviewed