Psychologist Dr James Anderson and his associates looked into whether animals – dogs and monkeys – were capable of identifying anti-social behaviour, and in the process have found a mechanism by which basic morality can form.

In their investigation they made dogs observe three actors who played the following characters: a struggler, a potential helper, and an uninvolved bystander.

The first would show difficulty in opening a container, pretending to be incapable of this task, and ask the potential helper for aid. This actor would then either assist the struggler or outright refuse by turning their back to them.

a human hand offers a small dog a treat
source: pixabay

The dogs would then be offered treats by the actors. When the potential helper supported the struggler there was little preference over the food offerings. However, when they refused there was a major prejudice against them – with dogs tending to take food from the uninvolved bystander.

Carrying out a similar experiment on capuchin monkeys gave rise to the same result; a negative bias against those who had shown themselves to be anti-social.

In addition to this, reciprocity was investigated: two actors exchanged balls in front of a monkey. Results showed that if the transaction was unfair the primates were more likely to take food from the spurned individual.

a capuchin monkey in the canopy

What seems clear from this is that dogs and monkeys are more than capable of spotting anti-social behaviour within groups and, if necessary, will reduce their reliance on the perpetrators.

Anderson suggests that this works via an emotional response to negative conduct and is used to exclude bad social partners in the wild.

The primates were more likely to take food from the spurned individual

Anderson shared his thoughts on this with New Scientist, saying that humans show a “basic sensitivity towards antisocial behaviour in others. Then through growing up, inculturation and teaching, it develops into a full-blown sense of morality”.

This is child’s play for us. Research has shown children capable of making the same moral judgments, even at a young age. Most notable in this respect were experiments carried out by Amarish Vaish in Germany, revealing toddlers to be far less cooperative with adults who had displayed themselves to be harmful within groups.

Dogs exist outside of this sphere, lacking the ability to fully understand human speech and, therefore, our ideas of morality. It is because of this that they can be informative on the innate core of ethics.

A tan dachsund looks into the camera with confused expression

Kiley Hamlin from the University of British Columbia comments that the societal rejection “could serve to discourage individuals from behaving badly in the first place, as presumably they do not wish to be excluded from the social system”.

So humans, dogs and monkeys have all adapted to use this mechanism, but how have our pawed friends learnt to interpret our specific interactions? Their ancestors are social creatures – however, there are obvious differences in our mannerisms and behaviour.

Dogs have learnt who to avoid

Olaf Thalmann at the University of Turku gave a promising answer through his team’s analysis of mitochondrial DNA, finding that the onset domestication of dogs could extend to over 30,000 years – as far back as our hunter-gatherer roots.

It is likely that through this extended co-evolution dogs have learnt to navigate our complex and usually chaotic social interplays, and ultimately, who to avoid.

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