Are Dogs Our Psychological Kin?

You come upon a burning building and hear the howls of your dog and the cries of a person. You run into the building and realize you can save only one. Whom would you choose?

A recent study in the anthrozoology journal Anthrozoös (June 2013) found that 40% of respondents—and 46% of women—would save their dog over a stranger.  The results sparked articles the world over about human/dog bonding and ethics.

Hal Herzog, Ph.D., writing on his Psychology Today blog, Animals and Us (6.17.13) says that fictitious situations like the burning building, while unlikely, provide ways of studying human moral intuition. Another classic situation is the trolley problem: a runaway trolley is heading toward a group of five people. You can pull a switch diverting the trolley down a spur where a lone bystander will certainly be hit. If you do nothing, the trolley will head toward the group of five. The scenario is varied to study the roles of emotion and reason in ethical decisions and differences in decision making between men and women. (Suppose, instead of pulling the switch, you had to push the person; suppose the lone person was Albert Einstein. Or Mother Teresa.)

The study published in Anthrozoös changed the mix by positing your own dog or a stranger’s dog against different humans in varying degrees of relationship to you. Here, the bus is hurtling out of control bearing down on a dog and a human. Whom do you save? As the authors of the study concluded:

“Oftentimes, people consider their pets as part of the family. Based on the past research on moral decision-making, the current study presents a novel approach to moral decision-making by forcing participants to choose. The level of relationship between the humans shifted six times: foreign tourist, hometown stranger, distant cousin, best friend, grandparent, and sibling and from your pet and someone else’s pet.

Willingness to save the pet over a human consistently decreased as level of relationship between the participant and the human increased. The results suggested that pets are often viewed as psychological-kin.     

Dr. Herzog doesn’t think that in a real life situation 40% of us would save our dog over a real person. But, the study shows how we think. According to him, those in the study who saved people over pets were more likely to give logic-based justifications, whereas those who saved their pets did so from emotional reasons. (“I love my pet.”)

Really? Perhaps they viewed their pets as psychological-kin.  

Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, commented in his Wall Street Journal article “Mind & Matter: Our Unique Obsession With Rover and Fluffy” (8.17-18.13) that the study published in Anthrozoös “demonstrates human involvement with pets to a startling extent.” Forty percent, including 46% women, voting to save their dog over a foreign tourist “makes Parisian treatment of American tourists look good in comparison.”

But, it underscores “our unprecedented attitude toward animals, which got its start with the birth of humane societies in the 19th century.”  He admonishes us not to be too proud of ourselves. “We’re pretty selective about how we extend our humaneness to other human beings.”

Dennis Prager, writing for the National Review Online (8.20.13), stressed this last point. “How do we convince people to save a human being they do not know rather than the dog they do know and love?”

Mr. Prager contends that we need to teach “that human beings are created in God’s image and animals are not. That is the only compelling reason to save a human being you don’t love before the dog you do love.”           

However, the animal activist Joan Dunayer, charges that would make you a speciesist – favoring your own species over others.  She proposes that you flip a coin, since in her view (opposed by both Prager and Herzog) “The child and the dog have the same moral value.”

What do you think? When your board your pet, do you feel a psychological bond of empathy? Do you wonder how your dog will react to day care or bathing or grooming?

Even Prager notes that he has been asking his students since the 1970s if they would first save their drowning dog or a drowning stranger.  He has received the same results for 40 years: one-third vote for the dog; one-third for the stranger; one-third don’t know what they would do.

In a strange twist, the choice was put to a real test in early August when a couple yachting off the coast of South Africa capsized their boat. As they scramble to get off what appeared to be a sinking boat, the wife’s line snagged, and she was trapped. The husband grabbed their Jack Russell terrier first and then returned for his wife. (One media account reported that the wife had insisted that the dog go first.)

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