The feeling of frustration is something we can all relate to. From small daily inconveniences like the grocery store not having your favorite flavor of ice cream to larger dilemmas such as your car not starting in the morning.
In the dictionary frustration is defined as "the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something." In psychology frustration is often discussed as a feeling or reaction that occurs when you do not get what you expect.
There is new research showing that squirrels can empathize with us when it comes to feeling frustrated! However, their expression of frustration just looks a little different (arguably more adorable).
Recognizing emotions in humans is much easier than in other animals such as squirrels. Humans can express themselves with words or nonverbally with facial expressions. Humans are experts at decoding the non-verbal cues depicted in the human face (1). Even small children have been shown to have the ability to accurately label anger, sadness, and happiness just by looking at peoples eyes (2).
Try it out: Can you guess what emotion this is?
If you said anger you are correct!
Deciphering non-human animal emotions is more difficult. Squirrels for example do not express themselves with their faces. This makes them great potential poker players, but also hard to read when it comes to figuring out how they are feeling.
Just because we do not see frustration on a squirrel's face does not mean they do not feel that emotion! Squirrel Gazers 🐿👀just have to pay close attention to other features to find it!
During her time as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, Dr. Mikel Delgado, trained free living squirrels on campus to open small boxes to retrieve a walnut. As we know from August's post investigating the favorite foods of fox squirrels, walnuts are a much preferred snack compared to other nuts and seeds.
Once squirrels came to expect walnuts from the small boxes, Delgado began to play tricks on them.
First, she replaced the walnuts in the boxes with corn. In human terms, this is like being promised a donut 🍩 and being served broccoli 🥦. You might eat the broccoli, but it is not the same as what you were promised!
Next, she locked some of the boxes so that squirrels could no longer open them 🔒. Anyone who has ever forgotten the password to their email account and continuously tried to sign in can relate to how this made the squirrels feel.
(Delgado noticed that when the squirrels approached the box and did not get the walnut they were expecting they began to behave strangely. Squirrels who opened a box to find corn or came across a box that was locked would flag their tails and at times attack the box.
As mentioned earlier, frustration is often defined as not getting what you expect from a particular situation. Squirrels who opened boxes to find corn or were given a locked box flagged their tails significantly more than those who were only given boxes containing walnuts. This leads researchers to believe tail flagging in the fox squirrel may be an expression of frustration!
Aggression is another big sign of frustration, which explains why many of the squirrels given locked boxes actually attacked the box by biting and dragging it (3).
The take away here is that humans are not the only animals who feel and express emotions like frustration. Yet, often animal emotions can go unnoticed or misread because they do not always look the same as ours do. Humans have evolved to be expert face readers, but before now we lacked the ability to read the tail flag!
Curious to see what a frustrated squirrel looks like and learn more about Delgado's study? Check out the video below to see KQED's awesome coverage!
(1) (Izard, 1971); (2) (Guarnera, Hichy, Cascio,& Currubbac, 2015);