The Emotional Spectrum: Do Animals Truly Feel Shame?

We’ve all seen it – the viral trend of “dog shaming” where our furry friends “confess” to their misdeeds. From barking incessantly to stealing cookies, these acts are often accompanied by a seemingly guilty expression. But is this genuine shame or just a reflection of human emotions?

In 2018, The Atlantic stirred the pot with an article suggesting that dogs might not feel shame at all. Instead, their “guilty look” might be a submissive response, a strategy to reduce conflict with their human companions. However, Dr. Marc Bekoff, an expert in ecology and evolutionary biology, believes there’s more to the story.

Bekoff, who has written extensively about animal emotions, suggests that animals might indeed feel emotions akin to embarrassment. He recalls an incident with his Malamute dog, Moses. After a misdeed involving a torn ski jacket, Moses displayed behavior that Bekoff interpreted as remorse or shame. Such anecdotes, while not scientific proof, offer a glimpse into the complex emotional lives of animals.

Another intriguing story involves a cat named Salò. After a failed jump attempt, Salò, seemingly embarrassed, fled the scene as its owners laughed. Such behaviors prompt the question: Do animals experience emotions like humans do?

From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s plausible. Social animals, especially, might have developed a range of emotions to navigate their intricate social structures. Bekoff points out that even animals not traditionally seen as social, like reptiles, display complex behaviors and emotions.

However, the line between which animals might feel embarrassment and which might not remains blurred. While it’s unlikely that simpler organisms like paramecia experience such emotions, vertebrates, with their complex neural networks, might.

One hypothesis suggests that socialization plays a crucial role. Animals that rely on group interactions might have developed a sense of self-awareness and a concern for how others perceive them. This could be the foundation for feelings of shame or embarrassment.

Other theories suggest that animals might experience shame through a process of empathy. When an animal witnesses another animal experiencing shame, it might mirror those emotions, even if it doesn’t fully understand them.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not animals feel shame is a complex one. There is no easy answer, and the debate is likely to continue for many years to come. However, as we learn more about the emotional lives of animals, we are slowly uncovering a world of complex emotions that were once thought to be the exclusive domain of humans.