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Pampered pigs 'feel optimistic'
July 29, 2010 5:58 AM   Subscribe


 
tldr: if you give a pig a toy xylophone, you get better quality bacon.

I'm not kidding
posted by MuffinMan at 6:08 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Dr Catherine Douglas, who led the experiment, said: "We found that almost without exception, the pigs in the enriched environment were optimistic about what it could mean and approached expecting to get the treat.

Dear Dr Douglas
We regret to inform you that your PhD has been revoked, on the basis that you are a very poor scientist indeed.
Regards
Anyone with half a brain


A pig is more likely to associate a previously-unheard sound with a reward if it lives in an more varied and comfortable environment. Therefore it feels optimistic??? Unless there's a lot more to the research than that, the conclusion is a gigantic leap into a big pile of anthopomorphic assumption.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:13 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


"In contrast, the pigs in the boring environment were pessimistic about this new strange noise and, fearing it might be the mildly unpleasant plastic bag, did not approach for a treat."

2 bored pigs doing nothing.

What was that?

What?

That sound?

What sound?

Must be nothing.

2 pampered pigs being pampered.

What was that?

What?

That sound?

What sound?

Must be room service.
posted by three blind mice at 6:21 AM on July 29, 2010 [9 favorites]


I dunno, le morte -- "optimistic" an anthropomorphic word, but I don't think it is out of line to conclude that animals who often experience positive outcomes from new stimuli will be more curious and "positive" about other new stimuli. Can you think of a short word that would capture that idea that isn't anthropomorphic? Our language isn't especially rich in words describing animal's feelings, after all....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:23 AM on July 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Pampered pigs are probably delicious. You can taste the hope!
posted by phunniemee at 6:25 AM on July 29, 2010 [9 favorites]


The glass is half full of bacon grease.
posted by bondcliff at 6:25 AM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's rather more of a stretch to assume that humans are unique in having moods. There's nothing at all unique about our species except our society, which is ultimately just an emergent result of too-available resources, sexual preening and tribal morality.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:26 AM on July 29, 2010 [7 favorites]


It wasn't so much the term itself (although I do think it's misleading to describe many animal behaviours using words normally reserved for humans, purely on the basis that the behaviours look superficially similar) as the way she goes on to make all sorts of analogies with human situations.

Here's a simpler inference: the pigs which live in a more varied environment are simply less likely to experience fear in the presence of a new stimulus; having been surrounded with many different harmless stimuli, any new stimulus is more likely to result in inquisitive behaviour than fear.

There's no need to bring 'optimism' into it really, unless you intend to define the word very narrowly in a way that can be used to describe physical behaviour rather than an internal mental state.

Which is not to say that pigs don't actually experience something closely analogous to what we call 'optimism' - but I don't see how such a copnclusion can be drawn here.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:30 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I could listen to Dr. Douglas say "our glockenspiel" all day long.
posted by rusty at 6:32 AM on July 29, 2010


Pig: "I'm totally optimistic so that bung dropper* will feel tingly."



*note: if you're sensitive, don't go on the Jarvis site.*
posted by stormpooper at 6:34 AM on July 29, 2010


It's rather more of a stretch to assume that humans are unique in having moods.

But is it a stretch to guess that human moods, like many other things that are seemingly unique about our particular brains, are more varied and complex than those of most other animals? Does a pig feel comptempt or exasperation, for example?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:35 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Probably they have piggy ennui.
posted by doteatop at 6:45 AM on July 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


> human moods, like many other things that are seemingly unique about our particular brains

I disagree with your framing statement. Do you think humans other than yourself are anything other than automatons responding to stimuli? What about a genetic human who cannot communicate with a language you comprehend? Do you claim this incomprehensible human has moods? Can you prove it does? Can you prove it does not? Now use that same proof on a common mammal such as a pig.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:48 AM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Does a pig feel comptempt or exasperation, for example?

I don't recall the article claiming pigs felt the particular moods you're quibbling about. The article did use the words "optimistic" and "pessimistic," which mean different things to different people -- though in the article it seemed shorthand for "generally expecting treats" and "generally not expecting treats."

I have to confess when I look closely at my own sense of "optimism" it might not amount to much more than "generally expecting a treat." The flip side of these "do animals [that we love to grill and eat so much] really feel complex moods, or are we anthropomorphizing?" arguments sometimes seems like it should be "wait - are we humans actually feeling something all that complex, or are we romanticizing our 'special snowflake' human-ness?"
posted by aught at 6:51 AM on July 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


...fitter,
healthier and more productive
a pig in a cage on antibiotics.
posted by Windigo at 6:54 AM on July 29, 2010


Personally, I think we err in anthropomorphizing humans, too much.

like many other things that are seemingly unique about our particular brains

There's really not anything unique about our particular brains, in terms of kind. Many other animals have brains that share the same basic structure as ours. The differences are only a matter of degree.

Overall, our brains are larger (but there's lots of evidence that size doesn't matter as much as you'd expect), and some regions of our brains are larger, proportionally, than what we find in other animals, but most of these expanded regions seem to relate to higher cognitive functions such as self-control, planning and rational thought (cite).

But is it a stretch to guess that human moods, like many other things that are seemingly unique about our particular brains, are more varied and complex than those of most other animals?

Emotions are one area where we seem to have the most in common, in terms of brain structure, with other animals. So if anything, it seems likely to me that animals feel just as much as we do, only without as much mediation from rational thought (and to me, that seems consistent with observed behavior). To my mind, that suggests animals are probably more, not less, emotionally sensitive than humans.

But I agree with your general point, le morte, that the conclusions of this particular study may be overreaching.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:59 AM on July 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


Weird. If you click on Part 1 of the Ricky Jay video a few posts down, the first suggested video from YouTube is a pig playing a xylophone type instrument. Ahead of their time, I suppose...
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 7:07 AM on July 29, 2010


I disagree with your framing statement. Do you think humans other than yourself are anything other than automatons responding to stimuli? What about a genetic human who cannot communicate with a language you comprehend? Do you claim this incomprehensible human has moods? Can you prove it does? Can you prove it does not? Now use that same proof on a common mammal such as a pig.

I'm not sure I understand what you're reading into what I said, or why it's really necessary to do thought experiments. I was suggesting that the things we label with particular words and call collectively 'emotions' or 'feelings' are quite possibly not the same among all animal species. To infer similar emotions across the animal kingdom on the basis that we can infer emotional states from behaviours in our fellow humans seems like an unfounded jump. I can't offer proof either way; I'm just trying to be cautious about making assumptions.

I think saulgoodman makes a good point in saying that structural similarities in certain areas of the brain can be used to infer that humans and other mammals probably experience many common emotions. But on the other hand, the high degree to which human brains (not uniquely, but certainly moreso than those of pigs) are specialised for extremely complex social interaction, and ways in which emotional and social behaviours are interrelated, implies to me that one should still be careful about ascribing specific emotions (at least in the way we ascribe them to ourselves) to other animals.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:17 AM on July 29, 2010


Excuse my mangled last sentence.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:18 AM on July 29, 2010


Ah. So apparently pigs are very different from human beings.
posted by koeselitz at 7:25 AM on July 29, 2010


I really mean that seriously. I think pigs are very different from humans. And I know that human beings don't feel optimistic simply based on whether their life is pleasant. I've know human beings with fantastically pleasant lives who were incredibly pessimistic.
posted by koeselitz at 7:28 AM on July 29, 2010


But on the other hand, the high degree to which human brains (not uniquely, but certainly moreso than those of pigs) are specialised for extremely complex social interaction, and ways in which emotional and social behaviours are interrelated, implies to me that one should still be careful about ascribing specific emotions (at least in the way we ascribe them to ourselves) to other animals.

To the extent "optimism," in the sense of everyday usage, is a term that comes packed with all sorts of cultural and sociological significance, I think this is correct.

Will an "optimistic" pig see the proverbial glass as half-full or half-empty? Well, literally, it probably won't pay much attention to the glass at all, and will just try to get at whatever's inside it. More metaphorically, pigs don't necessarily see the world through the same kinds of structuring narratives that we do, so it might not even make sense to speak of a pig looking at an imperfect situation and seeing some potential opportunity to make the best of that situation, as the proverb suggests on the metaphorical level.

There are other dimensions to the broader concept of "optimism" as we humans define and use that term in our social existences that this study overlooks. If that's your point, le morte, I think we're essentially in agreement.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:34 AM on July 29, 2010


Better to be a satisfied pig than Socrates. Um... or something.
posted by Phanx at 7:37 AM on July 29, 2010


> one should still be careful about ascribing specific emotions (at least in the way we ascribe them to ourselves) to other animals.

As we drive towards a particular definition of the word "emotion" we begin to look for hairs to split and ultimately leave behavioural science for philosophy. I'm perhaps less cautious than you in that I'm happy to say that my step-son's cat misses him when he goes out, or my cat loves me when she prefers my lap to anyone else's when we're watching a movie. I'm fine with this, but do get riled when folks verbally hew to an position that elevates humans a quantum above other animals. I would see it simply as nuance.

And my thought experiments are very serious, but I'm willing to leave them writhing in Heisenberg's box of uncertain humanity for now.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:56 AM on July 29, 2010


Nobody stole, nobody grumbled over his rations, the quarreling and biting and jealousy which had been normal features of life in the old days had almost disappeared.
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:58 AM on July 29, 2010


It must be all of this talk about putting lipstick on a pig. I mean, who wouldn't be optimistic with so many concerned about your appearance?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:00 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Among other things, I'm a keeper of rare breed, free range pigs, but have in the past (for my sins) worked on an intensive pig unit. The differences I see in my pigs as opposed to the intensively farmed ones are less about 'optimism' (or whatever you want to call it) and more about the response to new stimuli and learned behaviors.

The pigs in the 'stimulus rich' environment will have had many more positive outcomes from their exploration than the pigs who have little to do all day, they will have learned that sometimes new things are fun. Equally therefore, the unstimulated pigs will have learned that being inquisitive brings little reward.
To call that 'optimism' is taking the idea a little too far. Part of the fencing of one of my enclosures consists of electric 'hot wire' fencing. After a couple of initial shocks, the young pigs soon learn that crossing the boundaries that have this fencing will hurt, that isn't a lack of optimism about their chances, it's a learned behavior in response to an unpleasant stimulus.

Pig "optimism" implies forethought on the part of the pig beyond "I did that last time and it was fun" with no real analytical evidence to show the leap.

Also, this part of the BBC article makes me question what the research showed, and what the press release missed out;
"Although techniques exist to measure stress, it has not been possible to directly assess whether or not a pig is happy, and the results, which Dr Douglas described as "compelling" will have implications for animal welfare.

The research, from the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, was funded by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare."

or

Research funded by organization with vested interest, gives findings that concur with the aims of the organization, says organization press release.
posted by Markb at 8:12 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


HI I'M ON METAFILTER AND I COULD OVERTHINK A PLATE OF PORK AND BEANS

(Awesome aside: my computer's dictionary suggested "Metamucil" for "MetaFilter.")
posted by tzikeh at 8:12 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: ultimately just an emergent result of too-available resources, sexual preening and tribal morality
posted by maqsarian at 8:13 AM on July 29, 2010


Here's a simpler inference: the pigs which live in a more varied environment are simply less likely to experience fear in the presence of a new stimulus; having been surrounded with many different harmless stimuli, any new stimulus is more likely to result in inquisitive behaviour than fear.

I don't think is just a more varied environment but one that is more varied and also more pleasant. It seems kind of like the research that taught rats "hope." You let a rat swim in an inescapable tank until it gets exhausted, gives up, and starts drowning, then you take it out of the water. You let it rest, then put it back in the tank -- it will swim longer because (or so it is claimed; I am not an animal behaviorist) it expects that it may be rescued -- it expresses "hope." Now, it's possible that "hope" is essentially different from what a human would experience as hope, just like it's possible that these pigs are not optimistic at all but, instead, "optimistic" -- a state that superficially resembles optimism as humans experience it.

Which is probably a distinction that should be made in a serious paper, but a little heavy going for a news blurb.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:21 AM on July 29, 2010


They really shouldn't be getting those pigs' hopes up.
posted by Evangeline at 8:34 AM on July 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sigh. Just like when I was in college and the world seemed so exciting. Now I'm debt-ridden and know the treats aren't likely for me. Sigh/oink.
posted by anniecat at 8:45 AM on July 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Our language isn't especially rich in words describing animal's feelings, after all....

How quickly everyone forgets that we are animals, we just have a higher intelligence. Of course pigs and most other animals feel similar emotions to us - Why not? We ARE animals!
posted by Malice at 8:49 AM on July 29, 2010


Equating optimism to approach motivation? Preposterous! Optimism is about the value placed on possible outcomes of uncertain events, the tendency to engage (rather than avoid) novel stimuli, the, uhh, shit. Approach motivation?
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:54 AM on July 29, 2010


We ARE animals!

Is this the point where someone starts yelling "Animals are made of people!" as they get dragged off?
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:30 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dang. I was expecting to learn about a reunited obscure 70's punk band.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:58 AM on July 29, 2010


That'll do, pig. That'll do.
posted by Splunge at 11:12 AM on July 29, 2010


Optimistic! That's.. Some pig! Terrific. uhh.. Radiant. Damnit, just humble.
posted by hanoixan at 10:51 PM on July 29, 2010


This reminds me of Valentino Braitenberg's Vehicles book, where in a series of thought experiments he describes machines with simple internal structure behave in unexpectedly complex ways. He describes simple control mechanisms that generate behaviors that, if we didn't already know the principles behind the vehicles' operation, we might call aggression, love, foresight and even optimism.

Braitenberg gives this as evidence for the "law of uphill analysis and downhill invention," meaning that it is much more difficult to try to guess internal structure just from the observation of behavior than it is to create the structure that gives the behavior, but it's hard to escape the implication that some of the things we think of as being exclusively human traits could be reproduced by surprisingly simple mechanisms. Like a pig's brain.
posted by jjwiseman at 10:24 AM on July 30, 2010






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