Emotional intelligence: How animals laugh and grieve

How animals experience emotions and their real-world implications

He stopped eating
Orca Welfare and Safety Act

Do animals feel emotions?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor our own emotions, and to understand emotions in others. This is evolutionarily beneficial to certain species, as it helps social groups to work together and thrive.

Some people are skeptical about emotional intelligence in animals. They argue that observations of animal emotions are based on anthropomorphic bias – the tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human entities.

But there is scientific evidence that animals are capable of feeling emotions, and understanding emotions in others. It is good to be wary of anthropomorphic bias, but we should not let our fear of bias get in the way of our research either.


Studying emotions

Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to study animal emotions. In *The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals*, he explored how body language, like smiling and crying, evolves in different species.

Darwin’s work was mainly based on anecdotal observation. The first scientist to study animal emotions in a laboratory setting was Jaak Panksepp, a psychobiologist working in the 1970s. Through experiments with rats, he identified seven emotional states, including rage, fear and play.

Panksepp believed that these emotional states were hereditary rather than learned. For example, a rat would show signs of fear when it smelled a cat hair, even if that rat had never encountered a cat before. In other words, these animals were born with a pre-set range of emotions.

Laughter in animals

One of Panksepp’s most famous experiments – and one he was often ridiculed for – looked at whether or not non-human species were capable of laughter.

When he tickled rats, they emitted high-frequency chirps, at a similar pitch to sounds they made when they were excited by pieces of food. Panksepp concluded that these excitable chirps were animal laughter. The rats enjoyed being tickled, and always came back for more.

Laughter might have evolved as a form of social bonding among mammals. It helps individuals to feel relaxed and playful in close proximity, and not to misinterpret something like tickling as an aggressive, physical attack.

This is a clear example of emotional intelligence: two animals monitoring their own emotions, and reading emotional cues in others.

Grief in animals

Laughter suggests that animals are capable of positive, playful emotions, but there are also signs they feel negative emotions like fear and grief.


When social animals, like crows or elephants, find a dead individual, they often gather around it, and stand there silently, as though they are holding some kind of funeral. It is hard to be sure if grief is involved, but at the very least, these animals appear to hold an understanding of death.

In the 1970s, a young chimp named Flint stopped eating and socializing when his mother, Flo, passed away. In the end, he died of starvation. Again, it is hard to know what happened in his brain, but his behavior certainly looked like grief.

Theory of mind

Theory of mind is the capacity to understand that other people have their own emotions and thoughts. It is an important part of emotional intelligence: we cannot empathize with another person unless we know they have emotions.

Conclusive evidence of theory of mind is hard to come by, but there are tentative signs in a few non-human species. For example, bonobos have been seen embracing victims of aggressive conflict. Without theory of mind, they would not know the victim was upset, or offer a comforting embrace.


Emotional contagion is the idea that one person’s emotional state can affect the emotions of somebody else. This has been observed in ravens. When one raven gets excited about a piece of food, another raven, observing, will show signs of excitement too.

Cognitive bias

Cognitive bias is a phenomenon in which an individual’s perception of reality is distorted by their beliefs and emotions. Optimism and pessimism are classic examples: people see the same thing differently depending what mood they are in.

Studies have shown that animals experience emotion-driven biases. If rats are tickled, and put into a good mood, they are more likely to pull a lever which has a chance of giving them food. This is a clear example of optimism; when rats are stressed, they pull the lever less often.

Similar results have also been found in other species, like honeybees. After the bees were aggressively shaken by researchers, they seemed to become more cautious and pessimistic.

Cetacean emotions

There is evidence to suggest that cetacean species – like whales and orcas – have a higher level of emotional intelligence than humans.

In the human brain, emotions seem to be controlled and manufactured by something known as spindle cells. Studies into orca brains have found that these animals have three times as many spindle cells as humans.

It is hard to know whether additional spindle cells translate into higher emotional intelligence, but some scientists believe these species feel stronger emotions than we do. They are social creatures, who live in family pods, where emotional intelligence is of vital evolutionary importance.

Real-world implications

Scientific proof of animal emotions has major implications. In 2018, the state of California passed the Orca Welfare and Safety Act in response to rising evidence that these animals have emotional intelligence.

This law made it illegal to capture wild orcas, or to keep these animals in captivity for the purposes of entertainment. Captive orcas have behaved in ways that seem to indicate grief, madness, and anxiety.


Scientific proof of animal emotions also raises questions about our moral duty to protect the natural world. Would people be so willing to cut down trees, and pollute rivers, if they knew that animals felt emotions similar to our own?

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