Horses Can Read and Remember People’s Emotional Expressions, and Can Adapt Their Behavior Accordingly

A study by the Universities of Sussex and Portsmouth in the UK reveals that horses can read and then remember people's emotional expressions, enabling them to use this information to identify people who could pose a potential threat. Published on April 26, 2018, in Current Biology, the paper “Animals Remember Previous Facial Expressions That Specific Humans Have Exhibited” is authored by a team of psychologists, co-led by Professor Karen McComb, from the University of Sussex, and Dr. Leanne Proops, from the University of Portsmouth - both specialists in animal behavior. The research team conducted controlled experiments in which domestic horses were presented with a photograph of an angry or happy human face and several hours later saw the actual person who had exhibited the expression, now in an emotionally neutral state. This short-term exposure to the photograph of a person's facial expression was enough to generate clear differences in subsequent responses upon meeting that individual in the flesh later the same day. The study found that despite the humans being in a neutral state during the live meeting, the horses' gaze direction revealed that they perceived the person more negatively if they had previously seen them looking angry in the photograph rather than happy. Previous research, including at University of Sussex, has shown that animals tend to view negative events with their left eye due to the right brain hemisphere's specialization for processing threatening stimuli (information from the left eye is processed in the right hemisphere). Importantly, in the current experiment, the humans did not know which photographs the horses had previously seen, to avoid any risk of behaving differently themselves.
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