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Cognitive Bias

In our last blog post, we talked about some of the methodologies we use to study animal welfare. We often look at behavior, and physiological measures, as proxies for an animal’s state of mind. But scientists developed a test that can measure state of mind: the cognitive bias test. Cognitive bias is the effect of emotional state on cognitive processes. Context and framing of information influence judgement—things that have happened to you over your lifetime, or just one day. Imagine you were bitten by a dog when you were a child, and now you’re afraid of all dogs—that is a cognitive bias. All dogs are not aggressive, all dogs don’t bite, but your brain’s framework puts dogs in the dangerous category. Similarly, if you’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed, you may view things that happen to you in a day differently than if you’ve had a great day. There are many iterations of these occurrences that form your cognitive biases across subjects.

In humans, we can talk about what has happened to us, or analyze why we view things the way we do. But can we get at this framework in animals? And why would we want to?

Let’s get at the why first. Understanding more about the animals in our care, just in general, is important, because it allows us to care for them better. This particular methodology helps us to understand an animal’s state of mind. Are they pessimistic, or optimistic? A cognitive bias test can answer that question—if multiple tests are done, we can start to get a picture of the general state of mind of an individual. If we know an animal’s state of mind, we can tailor their care to help them improve, or maintain, that state of mind.

Based on human studies, scientists developed a way to test this in animals. There are now dozens of scientific articles showing the effect in a variety of animals, from bees to rats to primates. We carried out this test with some of our Ambassador birds. We were interested in knowing their state of mind in general, but also during show season as compared to off season, and also seasonally, as they spend more time indoors in winter.

The study is ongoing, but the first test showed two birds to be optimistic, and one pessimistic. Without more data, it’s hard to interpret that at this point, as it could have just been their states of mind at the moment of testing. We will continue to test them to understand what their general state of mind is, whether show season or winter affects them, and what actions we need to take, if any.

Marieke Cassia Gartner, Ph.D.
Director of Animal Welfare

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