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“Pigs are very social and have a very complex and high cognitive ability to recognize people they know.”

A pig looks out of a paddock in Lost Creek, Kentucky, on September 29. Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images

When a fight becomes particularly thorny and protracted, it sometimes takes an empathetic, calming third person to bring down the room temperature.

Or, it turns out, a farm.

New research suggests that pigs – like many humans – are intelligent enough to recognize conflict among other things and defuse the situation.

According for the study published on TuesdayUngulates appear to have the cognitive ability to observe and empathize when two other pigs fight – and then intervene to reduce levels of aggression or anxiety – a form of social regulation that can benefit a wider group.

The study observed that bystanders sometimes intervene after a conflict by approaching one of the fighting sides and initiating physical contact by applying a calming touch to their mouths, rubbing either side’s ears, or simply sitting down against one of the opponents. It happened that a pig put its full head against the body of one of the fighters, which was also effective.

“Pigs are very social and have a very complex and high cognitive ability to recognize people they know,” Giada Cordoni, one of the authors of the study at the University of Turin told The Washington Post.

When she contacts a victim after an argument, her anxiety level drops, while aggressors we approach are less likely to att*ck the victim again – or other members of the group.

Cordoni describes this third pig resolution strategy as a “triadic conflict mechanism.” It was first observed in this species in the study – previously it was only identified in humans, wolves, primates and birds. It also illustrates what he describes as “pigs’ evolutionary convergence with humans.”

Louisa Weinstein, a conflict mediation specialist who works with people, agrees.

“When a third person comes in, someone may hear you. In the conflict, the other person doesn’t understand your perspective. The third party will at least understand your perspective, ”she said in a telephone interview. “The third party contains the conflict and the emotions associated with it. . . . We automatically regulate and behave better when someone else is there. “

Italian scientists spent six months in 2018 observing 104 pigs on a farm near Turin in northern Italy. The pigs were free to forage in the 13-hectare forest area – an environment that allowed them to move around and behave naturally. Researchers collected hours of video data for analysis.

They found that domestic pigs could engage in a wide variety of post-conflict strategies minutes after a fight.

Two fighting pigs may engage in reconciliation – or a third pig uninvolved in the conflict may make uninvited physical contact with the aggressor or victim, often through the mouth.

“The nose is very important for pigs, not only for communication and exploration, but also for social interaction,” Cordoni said.

Cordoni added that the victim’s level of anxiety has been observed to decrease after such contact, while “when a third party has contacted the aggressor, we can detect a reduction in the frequency of aggression directed at the second victim.”

This suggests that bystanders have the cognitive and empathic abilities to detect emotions such as anxiety in other pigs. Physical contact – which is not induced by any of the antagonistic animals – also suggests that the third pig knows when is the right time to intervene, and how to do it, the researchers said.

Another observation by scientists, suggesting a further similarity of pigs to humans, was the influence of family dynamics on the course of fighting. Passer-by pigs were more likely to intervene in pigs with which they were closely related, suggesting that they recognized and responded to family ties.

Conversely, in intra-family fights, pigs that were distant relatives were more likely to engage in reconciliation than closely related pigs. Cordoni suggests that this may be because closely related pigs are safer in their relationships, meaning that any damage from conflict is usually less, while unrelated pigs have weaker prior ties, necessitating conciliatory behavior.

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