Optimist or pessimist? Cows can be either, science says

February 14, 2018

We bring you this post on Valentine’s Day, which is a bit of a polarizing holiday in the secular world, with optimists joyously celebrating an occasion of love, and pessimists decrying it as a consumeristic day of pageantry. (We’ll be generous and assume a person’s stance on V-Day has more to do with their optimist/pessimist worldview, and not their current relationship status.)

We humans find all sorts of things to be either optimistic or pessimistic about, and now science shows that cows do too (even if they don’t care about having a Valentine).

Researchers from the University of British Columbia have found that some dairy calves are inherently optimistic or pessimistic, which they say is important information that farmers can use to ensure individual animals are happy in their environments.

“Sometimes we are tempted to see only the herd, even though this herd consists of different individuals who cope differently with stressful events,” said study leader Marina von Keyserlingk.

To figure this all out, the researchers trained 22 calves to understand how certain decisions could lead to rewards. They placed each calf in a small pen facing a wall with five small holes. Two holes on opposite ends would contain a bottle. One bottle would deliver milk to the calves, but the other would be empty, and only puff air into the calves’ faces. After a series of trial and error, most calves learned to approach the hole that offered the reward.

After the training, the researchers mixed things up by placing one new bottle in one of the additional holes during each trial. Calves had no idea if the new bottle would offer a reward, or a puff of air.

As the researchers predicted, optimistic calves approached the new bottle whether it was located next to the known-empty bottle or not. Pessimist calves wouldn’t approach the new bottle, even if it was close to the known reward-giving bottle.

Though the calves’ responses were varied, each calf’s decision was consistent over the course of three weeks. This led researchers to conclude that pessimism and optimism were personality traits, and not just the result of mood swings or temporary conditions.

"The next step in our research will be to understand what type of rearing conditions help ensure that an individual animal has a good life," added von Keyserlingk. "For example, more pessimistic calves may require different types of housing and management than we currently provide."

Neogen offers extensive product lines that help dairy producers care for their animals — whether they’re optimists or not — including products to help with mastitis and cold weather conditions. Click here for more information.