Few phrases trigger my skepticism (which some claim is overactive anyway) like the words “a study says …” Those three words are used as cover for more spectacular levels of pseudo-scientific BS than anything else, with the possible exception of corporate tax returns. Those, as everyone should know, are in an exceptional class of their own.
However, on reading about a recent study from the University of Sydney that dogs’ personalities are either optimistic or pessimistic, my usual surge of cynicism was lacking. In fact, my emotional response was really more of a Keanu Reeves-style “Well, duh.”
Let me finesse that a bit: I’m all for the study’s conclusions, but how researchers got there does seem a little dodgy to me.
First, let’s look at the subjects of the study: The study, titled Canine Sense and Sensibility: Tipping Points and Response Latency Variability as an Optimism Index in a Canine Judgment Bias Assessment ran behavioral tests on 40 dogs of various breeds. The most common breed was German Shepherd (nine dogs). That’s not a bad start as studies go, but when you’re making sweeping conclusions about dog psychology, it’s still just a start.
The methodology involved training each dog to push a button after hearing one of two tones. One tone meant they would get rewarded with lactose-free milk; the other meant they’d just get water. The dogs were encouraged to push the button at the milk tone, and to abstain from pushing it when the water tone rang. After they’d learned that, the scientists started to introduce two new tones, pitched between the “milk” and “water” tones.
The scientists judged how optimistic or pessimistic a dog was based on how often the dog pushed the button after hearing the intermediate tones. A dog who kept pushing the button hoping to get the milk treat was graded to be more optimistic; a dog who didn’t was graded as more pessimistic. As the abstract puts it, “This indicates that judgment bias … exists in dogs and differs between dogs.”
However, “judgment bias” is different than optimism or pessimism, which have their own value judgments embedded in them. It’s one thing to get frustrated about pushing a button for a reward. However, when my friends accuse me of being pessimistic, they usually mean that I have a tendency to see the universe as a bleak and absurd place, and that I believe in the end we will all be devoured by Cthulhu when he arises from his sleep in his house at R’lyeh. (Okay, I don’t go quite that far.)
The Washington Post quotes Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus from the University of Colorado, on some of the pluses and minuses that he sees in the study: “The paradigm of the study is great — most dog studies use 10 dogs or so, and this has 40 dogs of all different breeds and ages. And it’s possible that these dogs were pessimists — but maybe they just gave up.”
Bekoff has a good point: Calling something “optimistic” or “pessimistic” implies that it’s not justified by the facts. It could be, depending on the distribution of the tones, that the dogs are simply being realistic about their chances of getting a treat.
Bekoff says that in general, the study has some interesting implications: “Especially in dogs who are abused early on, you definitely see animals who just really won’t work that hard to get love or affection, having failed before,” he told the Post. “I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say that there are optimistic and pessimistic dogs — and that you can change their behavior.”
Ultimately, the study aimed to figure out which dogs can be trained for specific tasks. For instance, the dogs who were “pessimistic” were better candidates to act as service dogs for disabled people, specifically because they were reluctant to take unnecessary risks. On the other hand, “optimistic” dogs might be more suited for search and rescue missions because they’re ready to take risks.
I don’t know whether the button tests are convincing evidence that dogs are optimistic or pessimistic. My own experiences with dogs feel like better proof of that. My mother-in-law’s dog, Honey, seems to be an unquenchable optimist. Whenever I go into the kitchen after dinner, she follows looking up at me with unquenchable hope and hunger. She’s much more likely to get food from almost anyone else in the house because I’m not a soft touch. But I’m the one with the table scraps, and so there she is.
Ultimately, dogs are socially complicated animals, and it wouldn’t surprise me to know that they can be as pessimistic as the rest of us. I’m just not sure if you get that from a simple button-pushing test.
What about you? Tell us whether your dog tends towards optimism or pessimism, and how that manifests in daily life.
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