What Friendly Foxes Reveal About Social Psychology

The social skills of foxes may reveal deep truths about human nature.

Posted Sep 15, 2020

In ancient traditions throughout the world, the fox is considered the ultimate trickster. The Moche community of modern-day Peru believed the fox to be a warrior that would use mental powers to defeat its enemies. In the Celtic tradition, the fox is a mischievous and elusive shapeshifter, switching effortlessly between human and canine form. 

Still today, to "outfox" someone is synonymous with tricking them. More recently, however, foxes have taken on another meaning entirely: a window into human nature. 

These insights come from a Siberia based experiment, in which wild foxes have been selectively bred for over 40 years. In doing so, the research team appears to have given rise to a set of foxes unlike any before seen in the wild, with deep implications not only for the evolution of canines but for humans. 

The Psychology of Friendly Foxes

Evolution is a notoriously slow process, taking place over hundreds of thousands of years. However, these experiments with foxes allowed researchers to study evolution on the order of decades. In this setting, foxes were selected for a very specific trait: their friendliness. 

The artificial selection process was administered in a very systematic way. The researchers carefully noted each fox’s behavior and reaction to humans. At sexual maturity, each was assigned a "friendliness" score. Only the 20% most friendly foxes were bred together. 

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The Friendliest Foxes were bread together over several generations
Source: Photo by cloudvisual on Unsplash

This selection criterion was maintained with a set of silver foxes for over 50 generations. 

Over time, the friendly foxes became, well, friendlier. Compared to the same species out in the wild, these foxes were much less aggressive, less fearful of humans, and much more affectionate. 

Interestingly, the friendly foxes also came to look friendlier: The domesticated foxes had floppy ears, short or curly tails, extended reproductive seasons, and changes in fur coloration. In many ways, they became cuter—bearing a closer resemblance to dogs.

Cuddling with friendly foxes is likely a good time, but what does this have to do with human nature? It turns out, the most interesting changes had to do with something else entirely: the foxes' communication skills. 

Social Psychology: Humans, Dogs, and Foxes

Humans are naturally social creatures. We prefer the company of others and have a drive for community and belonging. But we don’t merely have a predilection to be social; we’re also really good at it. We excel for example, at mentalization, the instantaneous process by which we can develop an internal model of another person’s mind. 

There are many cues that we use to piece these models together. For example, eye gaze has incredible predictive value and contains a significant amount of this information. But when we want to tell someone that we’re thinking about a very specific object, good old fashioned pointing gets the job done. 

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Pointing is one of the primary building blocks of all social communication
Source: Photo by Thought Catalog on UnSplash

It seems completely obvious that if someone is pointing to something, they want us to look in that direction. But this is an incredibly rare ability in the animal kingdom. Our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, struggle mightily. 

Consider the following scenario: 

Two cups sit in front of you. Under one of them, you’ve placed a delicious treat, and under the other one, there’s nothing. 

Now imagine that you’re sitting across from a fellow human, who’s trying to find the treat. If you point them in the right direction, they would instantly reach for it. This exact scenario has been constructed with both chimpanzees, adult humans, and young children. While adults and children pass with ease, chimps just simply can’t get it. 

The only other creature that fares well on this is our best friend—the dog. And this brings us back to the "friendly fox." 

The Social Psychology of Friendly Foxes

What happens when the foxes were both placed in this scenario? The regular foxes performed just like the chimpanzees—the point meant nothing to them, and they chose the cups at random. 

The friendly foxes, however, performed much differently. They got it. They picked up on pointing, using it to infer the correct location of the treat. In fact, they performed even a bit better than puppies do. 

Photo by Howling Red via UnSplash
The "Friendly Fox" Experiment may say a lot about humans
Source: Photo by Howling Red via UnSplash

Generations of selective breeding did not just lead to cuter, more cuddly foxes. This was not part of the criteria. And yet, in selecting for foxes, they also augmented the foxes’ social cognitive abilities. This put the friendly foxes in a rare club of animals, along with humans and dogs, that can perceive joint attention

This might seem like a small gain, but it may provide a very telling window into our evolutionary past. Increases in friendliness also lead to changes in social cognition.

Both of these elements are key requisites for cooperation, which is the hallmark of the human species. We can’t run the fastest, fight the most ferociously, or see the farthest, but we can work together better than any other species. 

And if these traits could evolve in lockstep in the fox, could they also have evolved together in humans? This underscores the thesis of Survival of The Friendliness, by Robert Hare and Vanessa Woods. It argues persuasively, that, like foxes, humans evolved primarily for their pro-sociality. This allowed us to thrive as a social species, and for our cognitive and technological tools to flourish. 

As the authors state, 

What allowed us to thrive ... was a kind of cognitive superpower: a particular type of friendliness called cooperative communication. We are experts at working together with other people, even strangers. We can communicate with someone we’ve never met about a shared goal and work together to accomplish it. (p. xxiv)

Put another way, in the marathon of human evolution, nice guys finish first. 

***

It’s thought that modern humans have been around for roughly 400,000 years. In that time, our biology has stayed relatively consistent but our species has moved forward in incredible ways. We’ve outlasted the other human species’ such as The Neanderthal and Homo Erectus. We’ve gone on to proliferate all over the planet, developing incredible technologies, and rich cultural practices. 

All the while, we continue to wonder who we are, and what makes us special. In doing so, we’ve slowly come to recognize that our success can’t be completely understood in terms of how we operate as individuals. Specific traits such as intelligence and ingenuity don’t tell the whole story.

Instead, the collective picture is coming into focus. We don’t simply have better brains, but rather, brains that are better at understanding and working with others. Our evolved capacity for collaboration is crucial to the success of our species. 

This piece also appears in the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro.

References

Hare, B, and Woods, V. (2020) Survival of the Friendliest, Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Hare, B. et al. (2002) The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298, 1634–1636

Hare, B. et al. (2005) Social cognitive evolution in captive foxes is a correlated by-product of experimental domestication. Curr. Biol. 15, 226–230

Hare, B. et al. (2012) The self-domestication hypothesis: evolution of bonobo psychology is due to selection against aggression. Anim. Behav. 83, 573–585

Hare, B. (2017) Survival of the friendliest: Homo sapiens evolved via selection for prosociality. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 68, 155–186

Tomasello, M. et al. (2005) Understanding and sharing intentions: the origins of cultural cognition. Behav. Brain Sci. 28, 675–735