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As social creatures, we subconsciously match moods with those around us—and not just when a cranky supervisor darkens your day (Editor's Note: Is it something I said?). The scientific term for the spread of feelings is “emotional contagion,” a term that may feel particularly appropriate when it comes to grumpiness. But as is so often the case with human psychology, this very human behavior does not appear to be unique to our species.
Studying emotions and their contagious nature in other animals can be tricky. Relying on outward displays runs the risk of conflating a simple emotion with some overt rowdiness that makes it visible. Getting at that underlying emotion requires understanding how critters act in varying moods. A team led by the University of Vienna’s Jessie Adriaense tried to do that with ravens by designing a test to reveal whether they were feeling optimistic.
The first goal of the experiment was to induce a positive or negative emotional state in a raven. To do so, the raven was shown a pair of food items: dog kibbles (a highly rated treat) and some raw carrot (a hard pass). One of the food items would then be taken away. When the tasty treat remained in view, the raven should be enthused; it responded by walking up to that side of the cage and focusing its attention on the snack. When the carrot was left, the bird gave it a dominantly left-side side-eye (the left eye and right brain hemisphere are linked to negative stimuli) and scratched at the ground in frustration.
To study social contagion, this was done with another familiar raven looking on from behind a barrier that blocked its ability to see the food. From the next cage, the second raven could see the first bird’s reaction, but it couldn't see what was inducing it. The question, then, was whether the first bird’s mood would transfer to the second one.
Once a day for a few days in a row, the experiment was repeated using four friendly pairs of birds. After each go, the second bird took a sort of pessimism/optimism bias test. This test involved placing a wooden box on either the left or right side of the bird's enclosure. On one side, the box would always contain a treat; the other side never did. When the raven pecked the box, the lid would be removed to reveal what was inside.
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