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Trust and Cooperation are Widespread Among Diverse Animals

Anthropomorphism and human exceptionalism have outlived their utility.

Key points

  • It's not surprising that numerous nonhuman animals trust and cooperate with one another in many different social situations.
  • Claims that people who argue for nonhuman trust and cooperation are merely "being anthropomorphic" are vacuous.
  • Animals don't simply act "as if" they have thoughts, feelings, and points of view.
  • More studies are needed so we can compile a credible "taxonomy of trust."

Last Friday, as I was competing a draft of this essay, I was asked to comment on the notion of trust among nonhuman animals (animals). This request couldn't have come at a better time because I was reading Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World by Kristin Ohlson and The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World by Nichola Raihani was in my "to read soon" pile.1 I've also thought about these topics for some time because many animals are incredibly adept social beings, relying on different rules of conduct to navigate intricate social networks that are essential to their survival.

Timing is everything; I stopped writing, read the books, did the interview, and this piece is much more complete. In addition to many (but not all) dogs trusting us to give them the best lives possible, there are numerous examples of nonhumans trusting and cooperating with one another. They do so when they agree to play fairly and follow the "golden rule" of play, when they work together to get food, share it, and possibly defend it and to acquire a territory and defend it, raise youngsters and care for them (called cooperative breeding), and form grooming networks.2

 Marc Bekoff
Dogs and other animals cooperate and trust one another when they play. Play-fighting only rarely escalates into serious fighting, and these dog's trust in one another allows them to play without being injured.
Source: Marc Bekoff

Trust and cooperation go hand-in-hand. There's no problem using trust alongside cooperation because trust is one of the basic ingredients of forming and maintaining cooperative and cohesive groups, packs, flocks, or herds of animals. Lying, cheating, and deceiving can undermine trust among individuals and weaken and cause the desolation of social bonds.

Trust doesn't require language. The animals have to agree that it's best to work together for a common goal, however they do it, and that this agreement is good for everyone.3

What Does It Mean to "Know" Something?

It's sort of uncanny that an earlier draft of this essay focused on what it means to "know" something and these books and the discussion of trust home in on this deeply philosophical and daunting question. It's essential to balance skepticism with credulity about animal minds and in many cases, it's fair to argue we know enough to make credible claims about what other animals are thinking and feeling when they're doing something such as cooperating and trusting another individual or engaging in other activities.4

Along these lines, I once had a very interacting discussion with Alec about his dog, Murphy. Alec told me he actually didn't know if Murphy enjoyed playing but he took him to a dog park because Murphy played a lot. I asked Alex if he would do something to Murphy that would harm him and he said "No!" We talked some and Alec came to realize that he really knew that Murphy loved to play and that's why they went to a dog park at least five days a week.5

Scientists will often talk freely about animal emotions when they're out of the lab and then, when they're at work, they say something like we don't really know what an animal is thinking or feeling. For example, in The Emotional Lives of Animals, I wrote about a scientist, Bill, and his dog, Reno. Bill had invited me to give a lecture on animal emotions at his university and before I did so I had the pleasure of meeting Reno at Bill's home. Bill talked about how happy Reno was when he played and how he missed Bill and his family when they were gone.

After I gave my talk, Bill remarked that I was a bit too loose when I talked about animal emotions and I asked Bill to tell the audience what he had told me about Reno a few hours earlier when we were at his home. Bill smiled and a valuable discussion followed.

Anthropomorphism is a Dead-End Street

Like the authors of the above books and numerous others, I firmly believe that other animals trust and are trustworthy—individuals are saying or doing what they really mean—and cooperate—work together for a common goal—with one another based on solid comparative research, evolutionary biology, and common sense. It's unlikely, some might say impossible, that we're exceptional in these arenas and that trust and cooperation first appeared with us.

People who make these claims are not being anthropomorphic. Saying other animals are only acting "as if" they're being cooperative or feeling different emotions is an explanatory dead-end street and should be recognized as such.6 For some skeptics playing the "A" card—saying things such as, "Oh, you're just being anthropomorphic"—deflects attention away from what we know from detailed comparative studies. Bill and Reno always come to mind.

The essential question is why, not if cooperation and trust have evolved—what they are good for and what function they serve. I’m not saying dog trust is the same as human trust, and I’m not saying dog trust is the same as wolf trust. But the basic ingredient is that an individual has a feeling that another individual has my and their best interests in mind.

Creating a Credible "Taxonomy of Trust"

It sounds boring to say we need more research, but more data are always welcome.7 The books and interview mentioned above contain loads of information about trust and cooperation among diverse animals, but more information is needed to produce a reliable "taxonomy of trust." Many people are interested in these extremely interesting aspects of animal behavior and the more data we collect, the more likely it is that speciesist and misguided human exceptionalism will go down the drain, as it should.


1) Both books are reviewed by Richard Adams Carey here.

2) In addition to those contained in the above books and interview, numerous examples of cooperation among diverse animals ranging from mammals to birds to fishes to reptiles and possibly amphibians to invertebrates including insects can be seen here. Animals do try to selfishly cheat, deceive, or exploit one another but this seems to happen more rarely than cooperation and there can be sanctions for doing so. It's difficult to estimate the relative frequency of occurrence of cooperating and cheating, deceiving, and lying, and it's also possible that some animals lie about their intention to deceive.

3) It's possible that an individual may cooperate with another individual even if they don't trust them, but this is extremely difficult to assess among nonhumans.

4) Many different views about what it means to know something are discussed in Animal Minds, Cognitive Ethology, and Ethics. In this piece I noted, "It’s important to blend ‘science sense’ with common sense. I maintain that we know that some non-human animals feel something some of the time, just as do human animals. It’s nonsense to claim that we don’t know if dogs, pigs, cows or chickens feel pain or have a point of view about whether they like or don’t like being exposed to certain treatments. Who are we kidding? Frankly, I think we’re kidding ourselves.’’

5) Consider the precautionary principle that basically argues that it is permissible to accept that something exists before there is complete scientific proof, such as the existence of animal emotions—dogs like to play and wouldn't play if they didn't—or different cognitive capacities.

6) For further discussion of the "as if" disclaimer and why it doesn't really help us along see "Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures." Jessica Pierce and I also write about this in Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals.

7) I thank 6 colleagues who read this essay and made some valuable comments including about what we know, don't know, and what might be unknowable.

Bekoff, Marc. Animal Emotions and Animal Sentience and Why They Matter: Blending ‘Science Sense’ with Common Sense, Compassion, and Heart,’’ in J. Turner and J. D’Silva (eds.) Animals, Ethics and Trade (London: Earthscan Publishing, p. 27–40, 2006.

Anthropomorphic Double-Talk: Can Animals Be Happy But Not Unhappy? No!

Anthropomorphism Favors Coexistence, Not Deadly Domination. (Contains discussions of different kinds of anthropomorphism.)

Cooperation in Animals: From Ants to Rats to Clusterflocks.

The Lube Effect: Dogs Foster Cooperation and Trust in Humans.

Chimpanzees Choose to Cooperate Rather Than to Compete.

Cheats and Deceits: Trickery and Deception Are Widespread.

Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism.

How to Be Animal: The Case Against Human Exceptionalism.

"Are Chimps and Dogs More Sentient than Rats and Hamsters?"

Clever Dogs, Happy Cats, and Myths of Human Exceptionalism.

We Are Animals and Therein Lies Hope for a Better Future.

Brosnan, Sarah and Redouan Bshary. Cooperation and deception: from evolution to mechanisms. The Royal Society Philosophical Transactions B, 2010.

Cheney, Dorothy. Extent and limits of cooperation in animals. PNAS, 2011.

King, Barbara. Deception in the Animal Kingdom. Scientific American, 2019.

NPR. Essential trust: Trust in the animal kingdom.

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