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Writer's Block: Regrets Only

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Jun. 5th, 2009 | 12:22

Do you think that animals feel regret?

Yes and no.

No, not in a conscious, internalised way. Neither do a lot of people, so it's not really discounting them much. A lot of animals will, after being reprimanded or doing something that they have been reprimanded for in past, act in a fashion that most people register as regret, remorse or guilt. It's a learned response that they connect with doing whatever it is that they've done. Scolding/yelling/reprimanding is bad, something they want to avoid, and when it comes about it presents a situation where they are "publicly" displayed as the submissive/inferior.

On the other hand, you'll find that with most humans -- they show regret, remorse or guilt for the exact same reason: because they know they'll get in trouble. It has nothing to do with genuine, internalised remorse, but is rather a learned behaviour. They regret doing something which will be preceived as bad by others, especially more dominant or superior forces, as it will result in something bad for themselves. This doesn't mean that they regret the action itself.

I don't discount the possibility that some animals are capable of feeling genuine regret. Non-human primates, dolphins and pigs all have intelligence levels very close to humans, and it's not an impossible suggestion. Still, there are a lot of humans who've never felt true regret so I'm not sure that it means too much of anything; Pavlovian therapy seems to be enough.

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