Joyful by nature: a comparative approach to the evolution and function of joy in intelligent species
TWCF Number
Project Duration
December 15 / 2021
- October 31 / 2023
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Colin Allen
Institution University of Pittsburgh

Are signatures of human joy found in other animals? The aim of this project, which is associated with TWCF's Diverse Intelligences initiative, is to demonstrate that joy is an aspect of intelligence, particularly in four non-human animals: chimpanzees, bonobos, the New Zealand-native kea parrot, and bottlenose dolphins. Led by Colin Allen of the University of Pittsburgh's Department of History and Philosophy of Science, this project will:

  • Proceed from working definition to develop a rigorous characterization of the concept of joy and compare and contrast it to other frameworks from the literature such as “positive affective state”, happiness, etc. This is a theoretical undertaking and will be led by a philosopher of science in close consultation with the animal researchers; and
  • Apply this characterization to the research literature to explore the behavioral correlates of joy between humans and the study species.

Once this is demonstrated, the project will then also conduct detailed comparative empirical studies of joy. The project team will achieve this by running experiments to see if the behavioral signatures of human joy are present in animals as well.

Five research questions will be explored:

  1. When do the behavioral correlates of joy occur spontaneously during natural behavior? Researchers will observe animals for spontaneous displays such as repeatedly snow-surfing and giving the “laughter call” in parrots and riding bow waves in dolphins; observe and experiment by providing ‘enrichment items’ to animals in controlled settings.
  2. Can we elicit the behavioral correlates of joy by manipulating animal expectations? Researchers will perform experiments with all study species involving a windfall (an unexpectedly happy event) and study the animals' reactions; follow this up with an experiment to observe positive affect when a challenging task is unexpectedly accomplished easily (for all species except dolphins.)
  3. Do play calls or bouts of play lead to changes in internal states of animals? Using a well-established paradigm for gauging optimism (the “cognitive bias test”,) researchers will present calls (For the kea: “laughter.” For the dolphin “victory” squeal) to experiment subjects and observe whether they make the subjects more adventurous/optimistic; and observe subjects after play and present experiments to determine whether play elicits positive affect subsequently.
  4. Do the behavioral correlates of joy influence learning, memory, and attention? Researchers will present “joyful” stimuli in the forms of calls or play and then measure cognitive capacity through a variety of tests.
  5. Do the behavior correlates of joy influence social cohesion? Researchers will present “joyful” stimuli (in this case possibly adding tickling to ape subjects) and then measure sociality in the form of cooperation and lowered aggression.
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