Goats Prefer Happy People—on the Right

August 29, 2018 Updated: August 29, 2018

If you want to make friends with a goat, then stitch on a smile, turn that frown upside down … and keep to their right.

Scientists have known that various animals traditionally used as pets or close companions can read human facial expressions, but no studies had been done on less closely domesticated animals.

Researchers at the Queen Mary University of London have shown that goats can read human faces—preferring ones with happy, positive expressions.

“The study of emotion perception has already shown very complex abilities in dogs and horses,” said Natalia Albuquerque, co-author of the study, published in Royal Society Open Science.

“However, to date, there was no evidence that animals such as goats were capable of reading human facial expressions,” said Albuquerque.

A goat in the grass
One of the goats involved in the study that showed goats prefer positive human faces, at Buttercups Sanctuary in Kent. (Alan McElligott)

She added, “Our results open new paths to understanding the emotional lives of all domestic animals.”

The researchers tested goats by placing two images on a wall—one happy/positive, one angry/negative—and observing the behaviour of goats released from the opposite side of the arena.

Thirty-five goats were tested, four times each with a combination of male and female faces in different positions.

Overall, the goats preferred to interact first with the happy faces.

The researchers found that the goats interacted more with the happy face when it was on the righthand side–something they said might be due to the greater engagement of the left-brain hemisphere.

According to a major hypothesis on the mammalian brain, the right hemisphere processes negative emotions, such as fear and aggression, and the left-hemisphere processes positive emotions.

“Dogs, for example, turn left in response to aversive emotionally competent stimuli and thus process these with the right brain hemisphere,” wrote the researchers.

“In addition, horses show a preferential use of their right eye (right gaze bias, left-hemisphere processing) when looking at a human that has previously displayed a positive emotion toward them.”

Strictly speaking, the study notes, instead of preferring happy faces, the goats could be avoiding the angry ones. “The underlying mechanism is still to be sought,” write the researchers.

A goat at Buttercup Sanctuary
One of the goats involved in the study that showed goats prefer positive human faces, at Buttercups Sanctuary in Kent. (Christian Nawroth)

Lead author Dr. Christian Nawroth, said, “We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we did not know how they react to different human emotional expressions, such as anger and happiness.”

The research showed that goats were not only able to distinguish between these expressions, but that they also prefer to interact with happy ones, said Nawroth.

The scientists believe their work has important implications for how we interact with livestock and other species.

 

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