Effects of Human-Animal Interactions on Affect and Cognition

Elise R. Thayer & Jeffrey R. Stevens

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Psychology, Center for Brain, Biology & Behavior, University of Nebraska

Human-animal interaction has clear positive effects on people’s affect and stress. But less is known about how animal interactions influence cognition. We draw parallels between animal interactions and exposure to natural environments, a research area that shows clear improvements in cognitive performance. The aim of this study is to investigate whether interacting with animals similarly enhances cognitive performance, specifically executive functioning. To test this, we conducted two experiments in which we had participants self-report their affect and complete a series of cognitive tasks (long-term memory, attentional control, and working memory) before and after either a brief interaction with a dog or a control activity. We found that interacting with a dog improved positive affect and decreased negative affect (in one of the two experiments), stress, and anxiety compared to the control condition. However, we did not find effects of animal interaction on long-term memory, attentional control, or working memory. Thus, we replicated existing findings providing evidence that interacting with animals can improve affect, but we did not find similar improvements in cognitive performance. These results suggest that either our interaction was not of sufficient dose or timed appropriately to elicit effects on cognition or the mechanisms underlying effects of human-animal interaction on cognition differ from effects generated by other cognition-enhancing interventions such as exposure to nature. Future research should continue to increase knowledge of the connection between nature exposure and human-animal interaction studies to build our understanding of cognition in response to animal interactions.

Keywords: affect, animal-assisted interventions, cognitive performance, executive function, human-animal interaction

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Keywords: affect, animal-assisted interventions, cognitive performance, executive function, human-animal interaction
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