Here’s looking at you kid!

Christian Nawroth discuses his research exploring whether goats are sensitive to a human’s attentive stance.

Imagine yourself in a new city, without a map or smartphone. You are desperately searching for your hotel when you see two people in front of you. One of them is already looking at you, while the other one is reading the newspaper. Which of them are you going to ask for directions? Intuition says you should choose the one already watching you, right? – they’d give a faster answer.

Behavioural experiments on primates and dogs have shown that they are sensitive to differences in human attentional stance as well. For example, when dogs are told not to eat a reward placed in front of them, they disobeyed more quickly when the human who gave the command was looking away or was distracted playing a Gameboy. When rhesus monkeys had a chance to steal a piece of fruit from one of two researchers, they preferred to steal from the researcher who was looking away or had their eyes closed. Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? Of course, we know that apes, monkeys, and our dogs are pretty clever, but what about our barnyard buddies? How well do farm animals guide their behaviour on rather subtle human body cues? Only a few experiments have addressed this issue so far. One example showed that sheep react differently depending on whether a person is staring at them or not. They moved more and looked more often at the person when the experimenter was looking at them – indicating that they might perceive it as a warning sign. In addition, pigs have been found to approach an attentive rather than an inattentive person when being trained to receive food from humans.

We previously found that goats alter their behaviour depending on the body and head orientation of a human sitting in front of them, using a so-called food-anticipating paradigm. In this experimental setup, a researcher remained for 30 seconds in an assigned posture before providing the goat with a reward. Goats showed the highest anticipation for the reward when the researcher was clearly paying attention to them (see video here). However, anticipation of the reward dropped dramatically when less attention was paid to the goat. In addition to their anticipatory behaviour, we recognized a different, very prominent, behavioural pattern – goats at some point started to ‘stare’ at the researcher (see video here). Curiously, this behaviour was highest when the researcher was present but was not paying attention to the goat. Again, this might seem oddly familiar to some of you. However, we couldn’t rule out that subjects had learned during prior training that a certain posture of the experimenter would result in a reward. Therefore, we aimed to validate our findings using a slightly different test setup.

Goats know when they’re in the spotlight

In our new goat research, we investigated whether goats are sensitive to a human’s attentive stance in a more naturalistic and cooperative setting. In a series of three experiments, goats had the opportunity to approach one or two experimenters in anticipation of getting a food reward (a piece of pasta). In our first experiment, we found that goats, when confronted with a human who had his back turned to them, actively go around the experimenter to enter the zone of attention. However, this was only the case for full body orientation and not head orientation alone. In our second experiment, goats had the opportunity to choose between two experimenters, with one paying attention while the other one was looking away. Goats preferred to approach humans that oriented their body and head towards the subject, whereas, again, head orientation alone had no effect on goats’ choice behaviour. In a final experiment, goats were transferred to a separate test arena and were rewarded for approaching two experimenters providing a food reward during training trials. In the subsequent test, goats had to choose between the two experimenters differing in their attentional states. And again, goats did not show a preference for the attentive person when the inattentive person turned her head away from the subject. However, surprisingly, goats preferred to approach the attentive person compared to a person who closed their eyes.

Together with previous findings, these results show that goats are extremely sensitive to the body orientation of humans, and even try to get into the spotlight if a human turns away from them. However, and contrary to our previous work, we did not find evidence that they take human head orientation into account. We argue that due to goats’ laterally positioned eyes, they might not consider a human with his/her head turned to the side as genuinely inattentive, because a goat with the same head orientation would still be able to catch up on everything that’s going on. So, next time you walk past a goat farm and want to observe what they are up to, just be aware, they probably already know you’re watching them!