Cat or dog? If I have to choose, I choose dog. It seems, if pushed, most academic research psychologists choose dog as well. I say that because there are quite a few studies about how we interact with dogs but hardly any (none?) about cats [UPDATE: actually there are studies on human-cat psychology].
Here are my five favourite studies on the psychology of human-dog interaction.
1. Is talking to a dog like talking to a baby?
Are these people talking to their babies or their dogs:
“Who’s a clever little boy?”
“Oh my God, the living room carpet is ruined!”
Difficult to tell right? So Mitchell (2001) thought, which is why he decided to compare how people talk to infants with how they talk to dogs. He found both similarities and differences:
Similarities: high-pitched voice, repetitive use of grammatically acceptable words, present-tense verbs.
Differences: Dog-talk involved shorter sentences and more orders while baby-talk included more questions.
Which all raises the question of whether we’re treating our babies like dogs or our dogs like babies. Either way, the authors point out the main problem in talking to both babies and dogs is it “involve[s] communicating with a limited and inattentive addressee.”
I think that’s a bit harsh on dogs.
2. Do we think dogs understand us?
What with all that baby-talk going on, you’d think that dogs would pick up the odd word or two. To examine people’s perceptions of their dog’s understanding Pongracz, Miklosi and Csanyi (2001) gave Hungarian dog-owners a questionnaire. It asked them to rate the types of utterances they thought their dogs could understand. Top of the list came questions, followed by permissions and information giving. It seems these dogs are regular little Lassies.
But what proof is there that they really understand? Well, we can only tell by how the dog responds. So, next the authors asked dog-owners how often their dogs demonstrated understanding by obeying a command. Our hardy Hungarian dog-owners reckoned:
- Dogs obeyed 31% of the time under all circumstances.
- Dogs obeyed 53% of the time when the context was right
Seems pretty high to me. Or perhaps Hungarian dogs are very smart.
3. Are dogs ice-breakers?
Even if dogs can’t understand what we’re saying they’re still fantastic props for starting conversations. When taking a dog for a walk, you can’t help getting chatting to people. OK, so you’re mainly apologising to parents as your dog mauls their children, but at least its social contact, right?
The evidence for this one is provided by Rogers, Hart and Boltz (1993) in an observational study of elderly dog walkers. They found dog owners have more conversations in which, surprise surprise, they often talked about their dogs.
Not only that, but dog owners tended to report higher satisfaction with their emotional, social and physical states. So not only do dogs start conversations, they may also make you healthier.
4. Do dogs resemble their owners?
I recently covered a study finding that couples come to resemble each other facially over time. So what about dogs and their owners? There are a few studies on this – well actually there’s three academic articles and just one study.
a. Roy and Christenfeld (2004) find that, yes, dogs do resemble their owners, but only if they’re purebreds – that’s the dogs now, not the owners. So, the old chestnut is true. Hooray!
b. Levine (2005), reanalysing the data collected in the first study, say no – there’s problems with Roy and Christenfeld’s (2004) study. This means we can’t yet be sure purebred dogs resemble their owners. A new study is required. Booo.
c. The authors of the original study say yes their original study was correct (Roy & Christenfeld, 2005). Hooray! (I think?)
The world still awaits the conclusion…
5. Is it wrong to eat your dog?
Dog lovers: look away now. Cat lovers: sharpen your knives. Haidt, Koller & Dias (1993) wanted to find out how culture affects the way we moralise about different types of behaviours using fictional stories. One story participants were told goes like this:
“A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner.”
Then they’re asked if the dog-chomping family should be stopped. Turns out the answer you give depends on your culture and socioeconomic status. If you live in the US and you’re well off you’re likely to agree that eating your dog may be disgusting but seeing as it isn’t harmful, shouldn’t be stopped.
On the other hand, if you’re a poor US citizen, or you live in Brazil, you’re much more likely to moralise and think the dog-chompers should be stopped in their tracks.
As there’s little research on cats for all you cat people, I’ve had to make some inductive leaps based on the research about dogs:
- Cat-talk and baby-talk is completely unrelated
- Cats can’t understand us (mostly)
- Cats are not ice-breakers
- Cats and their owners may (or may not) resemble each other.
- Only eat your cat in a poor neighbourhood
Err, we might need a little more research on this…
UPDATE: I’ve since discovered that there is a small literature on the psychology of cats and humans. Read on about whether cats improve our mood, become attached to us and have personalities.
Haidt, J., Koller, S.H., & Dias, M.G. (1993). Affect, culture, and morality, or is it wrong to eat your dog? Journal of personality and social psychology, 65(4), 613-28.
Levine, D.W. (2005). Do Dogs Resemble Their Owners?. A Reanalysis of Roy and Christenfeld (2004). Psychological Science, 16(1), 83-84.
Mitchell, R.W. (2001). Americans’ Talk to Dogs: Similarities and Differences With Talk to Infants. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 34(2), 183-210.
Pongracz, P., Miklosi, A., & Csanyi, V. (2001). Owner’s beliefs on the ability of their pet dogs to understand human verbal communication: A case of social understanding. Cahiers de psychologie cognitive, 20(1-2), 87-107.
Rogers, J., Hart, L.A., & Boltz, R.P. (1993). The role of pet dogs in casual conversations of elderly adults. J Soc Psychol, 133(3), 265-77.
Roy, M.M., & Christenfeld, N.J.S. (2004). Research Report Do Dogs Resemble Their Owners? Psychological Science, 15(5), 361.
Roy, M.M., & Christenfeld, N.J. (2005). Dogs Still Do Resemble Their Owners. Psychological Science, 16(9), 743-744.
10 Weird Psychology Studies
→ This post is part of a series on 10 weird psychology studies: