- Learning when and how nonhumans apologize can inform "big questions" about the evolution of morality among nonhumans.
- There are multiple reasons why animals engage in reconciliation.
- More research is needed on the topic of animals asking for forgiveness.
"What's my dog feeling when they say, 'I'm sorry'"?
A few months ago, I was talking about animal cognition and emotions with a group of 8- to 10-year-olds. This question came out of this eye-opening discussion in which it was clear that these youngsters thought a lot about what animals are thinking and feeling, something that really pleased me. Some of them were upset that they were essentially blown off and told not to ask such silly questions when they asked their parents or other adults if animals ask for forgiveness and say "I'm sorry." Some of their own responses included, "Of course they do, just look at them"; "Yes, when they bite too hard, they stop it when another dog stops playing and runs away"; and, "If my dog knocks over a lamp she runs to my mom and lifts her paw as if she's apologizing, and my mom always forgives her."
In her excellent and critical summary of forgiveness in other animals, Kristie Miller highlights three reasons why animals engage in reconciliation and ask for forgiveness. They include: 1) They want to mend fences and restore balance—the good relationship hypothesis; 2) They want to maintain hierarchies—the hierarchy hypothesis; and 3) They want to minimize uncertainty, perhaps to reduce the likelihood of future hostilities—the uncertainty reduction hypothesis.
In her post, Miller reviews a study of reconciliation in domestic dogs called "Reconciliation in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Evidence for the uncertainty reduction hypothesis," and the title of this study shows what the researchers concluded. She writes, "Dogs spent more time with one another after conflict than before it because they wanted to reduce the stress associated with uncertainty about future conflict, by interacting in a way that would minimise future conflict."
In addition to their general conclusion, the researchers also wrote, "But it is clear that environment, social group stability, and familiarity have strong effects on whether reconciliation or dispersal occurs." In other words, context is critical to consider if and how dogs ask for forgiveness and if other dogs accept their apologies.
Miller also writes, "So do dogs forgive (and apologise)? I think it’s reasonable to think that the pattern of reconciliation behaviours is sufficiently like those in humans that we can think of these behaviours as constituting doggy apology and forgiveness." I couldn't agree more.
When dogs (and other animals) play, they apologize and ask for forgiveness
The importance of context—who's interacting with whom, who else is around, and where something is happening—can't be overstated. Trust and cooperation also are involved in reconciliation. Let's expand the results of the study on which Miller is reporting and evaluate the above three hypotheses about reconciliation when dogs and other animals are playing.
When dogs play with one another, they often have to apologize for overstepping the agreed-upon golden rules of fair play and they have to be forgiven for play to continue. The rules include: ask first and communicate clearly; mind your manners; admit when you are wrong; and be honest.
Dogs use actions called "play bows" to ask other individuals to play and also while they're playing to punctuate play bouts to admit they're wrong and say something like, “Sorry I bit you so hard—this is still play regardless of what I just did. Don’t leave; I’ll play fair.” They also engage in self-handicapping—they don't bite or slam into another dog as hard as they can—and role-reversing, which is when high-ranking dogs allow others to "dominate" or control them.
Although play is fun, it's also serious business. When animals play, they are constantly working to understand and follow the rules and to communicate their intentions to play fairly. They fine-tune their behavior on the run, carefully monitoring the behavior of their play partners and paying close attention to infractions of the agreed-upon rules.
How and when dogs apologize and forgive can depend on context—who they're playing with, who else is around, and where they're playing. My and other studies show that all three of the hypotheses mentioned above can apply in different situations for free-ranging dogs observed mostly at dog parks and for wild young coyotes. To wit, they may want to mend fences and restore balance for their own and their group's benefit, they may want to maintain social order for the same reasons, and they also may want to reduce the likelihood of future hostilities and have some degree of certainty that fair play will prevail and things will remain as they were.
All in all, fair play can be understood as an evolved adaptation that allows individuals to form and maintain social bonds. I explain that this is extremely rare, and tell them about a study by Melissa Shyan and her colleagues in which it was reported that fewer than 0.5% of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters.
Where to from here?
Miller asks for more research on forgiveness. She writes, "Come on researchers, let's do some investigating!" I agree and also stress that there are data already available that can easily be reassessed in terms of whether and when animals apologize and forgive. These data also can inform "big" questions about the evolution of morality among nonhumans, what Jessica Pierce and I call "wild justice."
I'm thrilled the youngsters were interested in whether or not other animals apologize and ask for forgiveness, and I couldn't agree more with Miller when she suggests researchers get going on this incredibly important topic. Comparative studies will surely help illuminate a taxonomy of apology and forgiveness among diverse nonhumans.1
1) It's also interesting to ask if dogs and other animals feel remorse or regret when they've violated acceptable codes of conduct. For more discussion of guilt in dogs see Dogs and Guilt: We Simply Don't Know and for an interesting study on regret see Rats Regret What They Didn't Do: Behavioral Neuroscience.
Play Signals as Punctuation: The Structure of Social Play in Canids. Behaviour, 132, 419-429, 1995.