Some Amazing Facts About Animal Psychology That Will Make You Rethink What Makes Us Human

It’s a pet hate of mine (no pun intended) when people tell me that my dog is ‘just’ an animal, as though that means they don’t have feelings or that their wants aren’t valid. While I’m not quite enough of a hippy to believe dogs should get the vote, I am very much of the opinion that they’re actually more intelligent than we tend to presume. And I’m certainly of the view that they have their own personalities and are capable of building real relationships (no matter how much I’m told that I’m merely ‘projecting’ my own personality, or that my dog just likes me because I have two hands and can open a can of dog-food).

Most people who have lived with a pet will agree that their psychology is a little more complex than Pavlov would have us believe. While it’s true that they do enjoy the can opener as one of my finer skills, they also have a tendency to come to different members of the family when they want different things (my dog likes me for rough housing mostly, and when he’s in trouble because he knows I’m a soft touch). Likewise they can fall out with you (few things are so amusing as when he sits at the end of the sofa and refuses to look at you after you’ve reprimanded him), and even outsmart you when chasing you around the house (it’s probably my intelligence that needs to be called into question here…).

The point is that animals clearly have a complex internal life, it’s just that we don’t fully understand it yet. And if you need any further proof, or want to convince your doubting friends, then read on for some amazing examples that show just how intelligent and human-like animal psychology can be…

Cows Have Best Friends

You might think that friendship is a completely unique human experience, but actually that’s not true at all. Not only do animals have friends, but cows have been shown in studies to have ‘best friends’ – even showing signs of distress when they get separated from them.

Many Animals Can Use Tools

Another trait that seems very human is the ability to think creatively and engineer solutions by using raw materials. Again though, this is something that animals can do too – not only can primates use sticks to fish ants out of trees and to club snakes (chimpanzees even make spears!), but many other animals have also found useful uses for the things in their environment. Some birds for instance use traffic in order to crack open nuts, while elephants have been known to short out electric fences by dropping branches on them. Dolphins have been spotted using sponges to stir up sand on the ocean floor when looking for prey, Gorillas have used branches as walking sticks and to test water depth, octopuses use coconut shells to make armour and deguses (rodents similar to chinchillas) can use little rakes to bring food closer to their cage. Some chimps even have toys – treating sticks like ‘babies’ in the same way children used dolls. And what do you call a nest if not a bed made out of sticks? Don’t feel so special now do you?

Chimpanzees Believe in God

Okay not quite, but chimpanzees have been seen displaying behaviours that are thought to be ‘quasi religious’. When faced with fires, waterfalls or storms – chimpanzees (which are our closest relatives) have been seen to react with rituals and even to perform a particular ‘rain dance’. This could be the early signs of the same kind of ‘worship’ that ultimately lead to the kinds of religions we have today. Who knows? Perhaps they believe the rain is caused by the big chimp in the sky?

Chimps Can Light Fire

Not impressed enough by chimpanzees? How about this – when in captivity they can actually be taught to control fire using matches and other similar tools. And we know what that discovery ultimately lead to for humans (tip: you wouldn’t be reading this if our early ancestors had never discovered fire…).

Alex the Amazing Parrots

It’s not just chimps that challenge our view of animal psychology – also impressive are parrots and one parrot in particular – named Alex – demonstrated this to an amazing extent.

Alex was not only able to mimic words, but also use them in the correct context: identifying foods, shapes and even materials. More impressive still, he could use this ability to make requests for things he wanted. That’s not just mimicking – that’s talking! Now imagine if you gave a chimpanzee a greater vocal range: what could they accomplish then?

Rats Laugh

Laughing is a strange enough phenomenon as it is, but it’s even more unusual to think that animals can laugh in the same sense as we can. Actually that’s true, and rats will laugh when tickled under their bellies…

Some Animals Can Commit Suicide

Giggling rats is a cute idea, but this one is a little more grim: both elephants and dolphins are known to be capable of committing suicide. When in harsh conditions an elephant will step on its own trunk in order to suffocate itself. Think about the implications for the intelligence of those animals: it means that they not only have a sense of ‘future’ (enough to know that their situation isn’t likely to change), but also a grasp of their own anatomy and their mortality…

Tarra & Bella

The fact that elephants understand death isn’t something that’s new to us: and it’s a well-known fact that elephants not only keep graveyards but also mourn their dead. A tale that might still impress you however is that of Tarra and Bella – an elephant and a dog who became best friends and were inseparable for a long time. When Tarra the dog eventually died, Bella found the body and carried it back home to her sanctuary. Not only did Bella spend time mourning – once again showing an understanding for life and death.

Dolphins Have Names

Dolphins are another species that are often focussed on for their smarts. A recent finding that exemplifies this is that dolphins actually have names for one another (which form when other dolphins mimic the sounds they make) – and recognise their own title when it is called by other dolphins.

Whales Have Pop Music

When mating, whales will make a certain kind of ‘tune’ that sounds like music. Now that on its own is nice, but not particularly indicative of intelligence. What is impressive though, is that these tunes will spread throughout whale populations and come in and out of fashion – a ‘cultural’ exchange much like our own. I wonder if they have an equivalent of Gangnam Style?

Male Pups Let Females Win

When play fighting, male puppies will sometimes let female puppies win on purpose in order to keep them happy. Again, this suggests that they not only understand the nature of the game they’re playing, but are also able to empathise with the female puppies and predict how they are going to feel. This is something that some humans still apparently struggle with…

Monkeys Like Justice

And speaking of fairness, monkeys notice when receiving different payments for the same work and get understandably upset when they get the short shrift. This suggests that monkeys not only grasp fairness and equality, but also that they experience emotions like jealousy.

Pigs Can Play Computer Games

In one study, pigs were taught to play computer games in order to win treats. They can play basic games like Pong and Breakout (though ‘Call of Duty’ is a little above them) and even more impressive is the fact that you can now play with them using an iPad and a copy of ‘Pig Chase’. Technically that’s also an example of a pig using an iPhone and the internet.

For all you know, I’m a pig…



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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

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