With Halloween being yesterday, a recent study that examined the effect of scary Halloween masks on animals seemed appropriate. Masks can be meant to make us laugh, but usually they are meant to cause fear, especially the masks seen around Halloween. We have all seen scary masks, such as the Scream face, vampires or even politicians, but most of us have probably not thought about how animals react to these masks. In this blog post I will talk about this study as well as provide some resources for those of you interested in Comparative or Behavioral Psychology.
In a study conducted earlier this year by Joan Sinnott (2012) at the University of South Alabama, non-human animals perception of scary Halloween masks were measured and compared to humans’ evaluations of the masks. Three hypotheses were postulated, each in line with different theories of fear acquisition (Sinnott, 2012). The first was the human-cultural hypothesis, which proposed that only humans would be scared of the Halloween masks due to social conditioning. The General Biological hypothesis argued that since the masks resemble traditional predatory animals (long canine teeth, flared nostrils, etc.) both humans and non-humans would be equally scared of the Halloween masks (Sinnott, 2012)The third hypothesis was based on Primate Biological theories and proposed that since primates and humans are closely related they would be scared similarly, but non-primate animals would not be scared of the masks (Sinnott, 2012).
So how do you measure how scared a zoo animal is of a Halloween mask? Well, first the researchers needed to determine how humans felt about each mask (Sinnott, 2012). A group of fifteen students were asked to rate each of the thirteen masks on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being not scary at all and 10 being terrifying. Then, a scariness factor was calculated by averaging the humans’ ratings of each mask (Sinnott, 2012). Once the humans’ level of fear for each mask was established, it was now time to take this experiment to the zoo! Feeding time was determined the perfect time to measure fear levels of the zoo animals (Sinnott, 2012). The experimenters first developed a control measure by entering the animal’s habitat without a mask and recording the amount of time each animal took to get food from the experimenter. Then the experimenter repeated this method of food presentation, but he took turns putting on each mask (Sinnott, 2012).. The time it took the animals to get the food when the experimenter had the mask on was then compared to the control trial (Sinnott, 2012).
The results were quite interesting. There was a relationship between the human ratings of the masks and the amount of time primates took to get the food (Sinnott, 2012). Non-primate’s latency period was not affected by the presentation of Halloween masks, which suggests that primates have higher cognitive or emotional capacities that are more similar to humans, supporting the Primate Biological hypothesis (Sinnott, 2012). Something else that caught my eye regarding the results of this study was that both humans and primates respond similarly to the presentation of fear-inducing stimuli. Some primates hid when the man with the mask entered their cage, and others responded with aggressive behavior such as shaking their bars and charging. Whether the primate engaged in fight or flight, they all used vocal expressions to convey their emotions (Sinnott, 2012). Humans do this as well; we see it all the time. People who are scared and run usually accompany this action with a shrill, shriek or scream. Similarly, humans who engage in the fight response will also yell or scream. Although vocal expressions were not included in the variables of this experiment, it is still a point of interest for future studies (Sinnott, 2012).
The field of Comparative Psychology studies the behavioral and cognitive similarities between animals and humans. According to the APA, Comparative Psychology is the study of the “behavior of humans and other animals, with a special eye on similarities and differences that may shed light on evolutionary and developmental processes” (APA as cited in Crawford, 2012). Basically, Comparative psychologists study animals in hopes to better understand humans, as well as animals.
Another field of psychology, called Behavioral Psychology, also uses animals to understand human behavior. I’m sure we have all heard of Pavlov and his study of reflexive behavior in dogs (Gray, 1999). Many behavior psychologists utilize observations of animals to understand behavior. Since animals are observed and controlled more easily than humans, it is easier to study their behavior and generalize it to humans.
If either of these fields sparks your interest, you may want to check out the following links:
· Division 6: Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology of the American Psychological Association’s website. http://www.apadivisions.org/division-6/index.aspx
· The Pavlovian Society: http://campus.albion.edu/pavlovian/
· Division 25, Behavior Analysis, APA: http://www.auburn.edu/~newlamc/apa_div25/
Crawford, C. (2012). Behavioral neuroscience and comparative psychology. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/division/div6.aspx
Sinnott, J. W. (2012). Perception of Scary Halloween Masks by Zoo Animals and Humans. International Journal Of Comparative Psychology, 25(2), 83-96
Gray, J. (1999). Ivan Petrovich Pavlov and the conditioned reflex. Brain Research Bulletin, 50(5-6), doi:10.1016/S0361-9230(99)00180-X