Humans aren’t the only creatures that get frustrated. Squirrels do too. One researcher wants to know, could there be an evolutionary benefit to losing your cool?
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YouTube viewers are well-acquainted with the squirrel genre: Thousands of videos that show squirrels going to great lengths to extract seeds from bird feeders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgDa_cpgHWs), or the old favorite, squirrels stuffing their cheeks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_15UrPHkVQo).
Maybe squirrels are so popular because we see some of ourselves in them. This is part of what fueled Mikel Delgado’s interest in the fox squirrels she saw at the University of California, Berkeley. An animal behaviorist and doctoral student there, she likes to quote from Charles Darwin’s book “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,” in which the English naturalist proposed that the differences between humans and other animals aren’t that clear-cut.
“It was controversial because people thought animals were machines and didn’t feel pain,” she said.
Inspired by Darwin, Delgado was intrigued by squirrels’ emotional worlds. The way to tell what they’re feeling, researchers have found, is to watch their tails. When threatened by a predator like a dog, a fox squirrel whips its tail in an s-shaped pattern that researchers call “flagging.”
Delgado wondered what else she could learn from watching squirrels flag their tails. For instance, do they get frustrated, the way that people do? So she devised an experiment to explore this question.
She taught some of the fox squirrels on campus to lift the lid of a plastic box to find a walnut inside. When the squirrel ate the nut, she dropped another one in. This way, she trained the squirrels to expect a walnut when they looked inside. This training was important because frustration is usually defined as not getting what you expect.
Then she replaced the walnut with corn – which squirrels don’t like as much – or left the box empty. These squirrels flagged their tails. For a third group, she locked the box. They flagged their tails the most. They got aggressive, a hallmark of frustration. And they bit, toppled and dragged the box, trying to open it.
That makes Delgado think that perhaps frustration has an evolutionary purpose, that it isn’t just for blowing off steam, but is instead a way to gather up energy to “brute-force” a solution.
--+ Is frustration an emotion?
“It’s a little bit controversial,” said Delgado. “It depends on who you talk to.”
Researchers don’t consider frustration one of the basic, or universal, emotions. In the 1960s, psychologist Paul Ekman identified six universal emotions: joy, anger, sadness, surprise, fear and disgust:
Frustration is related to anger, but researchers don’t consider frustration a basic emotion. “There’s a question as to what exactly it is,” said Delgado. “Sometimes you see it described very specifically as a task: For example, when you expect a soda and you don’t get it from the vending machine. And sometimes you see it described as the response to the task.”
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The lab of Lucia Jacobs, where Mikel Delgado does her research: http://jacobs.berkeley.edu/
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