Study: Goats Can Tell Happy From Angry Human Faces, and They Prefer One

"I was surprised."

There’s a lot more going on behind a goat’s freaky eyes than we may think. Despite the fact that they’re popularly depicted as dimwitted creatures who are only interested in eating, anyone who’s seen the disturbingly wise devil-goat in The Witch knows their true potential. While it’s highly unlikely that they’re vessels for demonic spirits, new research in Royal Society Open Science shows that they haven’t received the credit they deserve for their emotional and intellectual capacities.

In a paper published Tuesday, an international team of researchers shows that goats presented with pictures of human faces are more interested in a happy face than an angry face. This is noteworthy because goats, which have historically been raised for meat and milk, are not typically thought of as animals that live and work closely with human, unlike animals like dogs, cats, and horses. These animals have long lived by the side of humans, but goats have always stuck to the pastures. But as the researchers point out, goats seemed to have picked up a few human-reading tricks over their history as domesticated animals.

“Our results will probably not surprise any farmers or those familiar with keeping goats,” Alan McGelligott, Ph.D., an associate professor of animal behavior at the University of Roehampton in the United Kingdom and one of the authors on the study, tells Inverse. “However, in general, goats (and other livestock) are often portrayed as being ‘stupid,’ and we hope that our research can result in improved animal care and welfare.”

To conduct this study, researchers trained goats to come to them and snack from their hands. In a series of subsequent trials, the researchers left the experimental area — basically a makeshift shed — and turned around two boards to expose photos of human faces printed on regular-sized sheets of printer paper. Each pair of photos was of the same person that the goats had never met, alternately smiling and frowning. When the goats were left to run free to investigate the pictures, they usually investigated the smiling one first — as long as it was on the right (more on that later).

These findings suggest that domestication may have affected the cognitive abilities of farm animals more than we’ve previously suspected. Indeed, the experiment involving pairs of smiling and frowning faces, when carried out on horses, has shown that horses physiologically react to photos of angry human faces with elevated heart rates and other signs of stress. It makes sense that horses can do this, since they’ve carried riders and pulled plows for thousands of years, which has generally led to selective breeding for animals that get along well with humans. Goats, however, may have been doing the same all along, only we’ve been too dismissive to notice.

Alan Mcelligott (left) and a goat (right).

Nawroth et al

Compared to horses, goats don’t have as much close contact with humans, despite being one of the earliest animals domesticated for livestock. But this new study suggests that, despite living on the margins of human society, goats have a remarkable capacity for detecting at least some basic human emotions.

“I was surprised. I thought the goats might either ignore the images, or maybe even try to chew on them. But the goats really seemed to stop and take time to investigate,” says McElligott.

Natalia Albuquerque, a Ph.D. student and one of the paper's authors (center) smiling at attentive goats (top and bottom).

Nawroth et al

One strange result of the study, as noted earlier, is that the goats only showed a preference for the smiling face when it was the option on the right side. When the smiling face was on the left, the goats showed no preference. The authors hypothesize this is due to the goats processing negative emotion with their right hemisphere and positive emotions with the left. As you may remember from school, the two brain hemispheres typically correspond to the opposite side of the body. Further research will likely tease apart this effect, but for now the researchers are satisfied with their novel findings, as they could help inform the way people treat goats.

“Overall, it is important to investigate the cognitive abilities of animals in order to raise awareness of their needs and improve welfare,” says McElligott. Just like other domesticated animals, goats are animals with the capacity for emotion and cognition, and even though they may not be as charismatic as horses, they may be similarly intelligent, complicating what we know about the animals living in our midst.

“We have shown they are also capable of distinguishing human emotional facial expressions,” says McElligott. “Therefore this ability probably goes beyond species with a domestication history of working closely with humans.”

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