Have you ever had your day ruined by one of your friends being a serious bummer? When one of our peers is frustrated and complaining about everything it tends to make us see the pessimistic side of everything as well. It’s no fun, but these “emotional contagions” are a big part of being human. Well, it seems like that might not be a uniquely human trait after all. A new study shows that ravens can read each other’s emotions, and experience emotional contagions as well. A frustrated, upset raven can bum out their raven friends and make them take on a measurably more pessimistic outlook on the world.
Ravens are incredibly intelligent, and their cognitive abilities have been well documented. It’s no coincidence that in mythology and folklore from all over the world, ravens embody the spirit of intelligence, problem solving, and trickery. But now it seems that, beyond problem solving and computational intelligence, ravens have a high level of emotional intelligence as well. According to the new study, published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ravens are in tune with the emotions of their peers and use their peers’ emotions—especially negative emotions—to make predictions about the world. This spread of negative emotions is what’s called an “emotional contagion.” According to the paper’s authors:
“Emotional contagion, which refers to emotional state matching between individuals, is a powerful mechanism for information sharing and, as a consequence, an increased defense against predation and the facilitation of group living.
Our findings[…]suggest negative emotional contagion in ravens, and in turn advance our understanding of the evolution of empathy.”
To show this, a team of researchers led by Jessie Adriaense, a PhD student at the University of Vienna, devised an experiment. First, a group ravens were made to live together for three months. Then the ravens were trained to distinguish between two different wooden boxes: one with a piece of delicious cheese, and one with a big bunch of nothing. Then a third box was introduced to the ravens, a “mystery box,” to see the baseline reaction ravens had to a wooden box.
Then the ravens were put together in pairs, one raven designated the “demonstrator” and the other the “observer.” The researchers then placed boxes containing either carrots or dog food in front of the demonstrator ravens. Ravens love to eat dog food, but they don’t care for the taste of carrots. Which is weird, but sure, they’re birds. For each pair, either dog food or carrots were placed in a box and then either left in front of the demonstrator raven or taken away before they could eat it. Predictably, the ravens reacted with more positive interest when the dog food remained in sight, and were much more upset when their preferred food, the dog food, was taken away, than when the carrots were taken away. At the loss of their delicious dog food, the demonstrator raven began kicking, scratching, and sulking while the observer ravens watched.
Then the observer ravens were placed in a different room and presented with a “mystery box.” While the ravens that had seen a positive outcome from their compatriots had little change in how they interacted with the box, the ravens that had observed their friend’s disappointment and frustration with their food being taken away showed measurably less interest in the mystery box than they had before seeing their partner’s negative reaction.
According to the authors this experiment not only shows that ravens experience emotional contagions, but also shows that negative emotions are more powerful, and rub off on others easier than positive emotions. The authors write:
“Negative emotions may be easier to experimentally induce than positive emotions, and they may be more salient in their expression than positive emotions. Moreover, animals (as well as humans) attend more to negative than positive information in their environment.”
Which is no surprise, really. It’s far easier to bring someone down than to cheer them up, and now we have confirmation we’re not alone in our misery. And as they say, misery loves company.