Subtle signals: Humans struggle to pick up signs of aggression in dogs

MUNICH, Germany — Many people pride themselves on their supposed ability to “read a room” or assess various social situations, but fascinating new research out of Germany finds that people are generally poor at predicting aggressive behavior among both dogs and their fellow humans.

Led by the DogStudies research group at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, in collaboration with colleagues from Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin and the University of Leipzig, study authors found that humans perform better than random chance when it comes to assessing and predicting interactions between humans, dogs, and monkeys. However, people struggle much more when it comes to predicting aggressive behaviors specifically among both dogs and humans.

To gauge how efficient people are at assessing social situations, a group of 92 volunteers viewed 27 video clips. Each video showed them a non-verbal interaction between either a pair of children, a pair of dogs, or a pair of macaques. The team also divided participants into two groups; one group had to characterize the interactions as either playful, neutral, or aggressive, while the other predicted the outcome of each interaction.

Each participant performed “above chance level” regarding the categorization of interactions among all species and predicted accurate outcomes in 50 to 80 percent of these interactions. However, accuracy of both categorizations and predictions appeared to depend mightily on the species in question and the greater social context of the interaction scenario.

Do people always think the best of man’s best friend?

In contrast to study authors’ initial hypotheses, people didn’t turn out to be better at gauging human interactions over those of other species. Moreover, participants fared very poorly regarding aggressive interactions in dogs and humans. These findings surprised the research team. After all, the capacity to predict potentially dangerous situations among dogs or humans can help people avoid various injuries and perhaps even death in some cases.

“It is possible that we are biased to assume good intentions from other humans and from ‘man’s best friend,’” says first study author Theresa Epperlein in a university release. “Perhaps this bias prevents us from recognizing aggressive situations in these species.”

“Our results underscore the fact that social interactions can often be ambiguous,” adds senior author Juliane Bräuer, “and suggest that accurately predicting outcomes may be more advantageous than categorizing emotional contexts.”

This work is a great next step, but researchers believe that further studies should focus on if these assessment skills can improve with training over time. Work conducted moving forward should try to identify which cues humans primarily rely on while observing and judging interactions (vocalizations, facial expressions, body language) and how those cues are presented by other people and various species.

The findings appear in the journal PLoS ONE.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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