So I've been thinking a lot about pets lately, spurred partly by the advanced age of mine but also by some book chapters that I've read in the last couple weeks.
The first is by John Archer, "Pet keeping: A case study in maladaptive behavior" which can be found in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Family Psychology. He provides evidence that pets manipulate their owners by triggering adaptations that evolved for other purposes. These human responses that are co-opted by our pets include our response to infants, anthropomorphism, and infant-directed speech. I know as a pet owner, I use a disturbing about of such speech with my pet and when I had two called them my babies. Which is part of the point, they activate mechanisms that evolved to facilitate parental behavior and social interactions with other people. The infant schema activation aspect was particularly interesting to me as was the unanswered question raised at the end of the chapter about to what extent different domestic breeds of dogs and cats retain the infant schema into adulthood. And does the suggested sex difference in the preference for this schema explain the greater female fondness for very baby-faced smaller dogs?
The second was another chapter in the same book, but with a rather different perspective. James Serpell and Elizabeth Paul's chapter, Pets in the family: An evolutionary perspective," examines a variety of possible adaptive consequences of pet keeping while acknowledging that much more research needs to be done. The fact that both of these chapters are on a book on family psychology points out how much our pets can feel like and really be family in the psychological sense. The adaptive hypotheses examined include social buffering, parenting experience, and honest advertisement of parenting ability. They report on studies that demonstrate physiological benefits (lower cardiovascular health risk factors) as well as psychological benefits (greater resilience in the face of stressful life events). Of course, they also raise the question, if pet keeping is adaptive, why isn't it universal and conversely, if it does not produce adaptive benefits, why does it continue to expand in popularity? They also raise a question I'll touch on again below, how does pet ownership affect the way people are perceived and evaluated by others?
The last was a brief discussion of pets in Psychology Today fellow blogger Gad Saad's new book The Consuming Instinct. He mentions that almost twice as many US households have pets as have children (at least half my friends seem to have pets rather than children as well, hmmm), and that we spend over $40 billion per year on them (and not just on vet visits) and remarks that marketers, while happy to use pets in advertising and sell products for them, don't do much research on the subject. I've already mentioned some evolutionarily informed thinking on the development of the relationship (jury still out on parasite vs adaptive) between people and their pets but Gad brings up some other interesting points too.
First, there is some evidence that men with a dog as companion are more likely to be successful in getting a woman's phone number. The suggestion here is that these men are displaying tenderness, affection, and an inclination to nurture and care for others...cues of being a good "dad." And goes back to the question raised by Serpell and Paul. But this also makes me wonder, does the breed of dog make a difference? Are men with little dogs like a chihuahua or a yorkie more appealing than those with a big Labrador or golden retriever or a Rottweiler? Do we make assumptions about people not just based on their caring for a pet but also on the basis of the breed and it's typical personality? Are the guys with the little dogs seen more positively because they care for a small infant sized dog or are the guys with big dogs seen in a more positive light because the dog is also seen as "manly?"
And what is going on with these studies Saad mentions of resemblance between owner and pet (dogs in particular in the studies he mentions)? The studies used a photo matching research design where participants have to match the dogs with their owners. A greater than chance matching of pets and owners suggests some resemblance and that is what both studies found. The explanation for why...similarity based mate choice strategies being used to select our pet partners. I found this speculation interesting (if it is accurate) and amusing as I have shown students a documentary on relationships and mate choice that interviewed a woman about her preferences in a man while she sat petting her dog. She clearly articulated a preference for large men in the tall dark and handsome vein...and some of the students always snicker as her dog was a quite large rottweiler who gazed at her adoringly the whole time.
At the same time, it makes me wonder about my own dog preferences, mastiffs and the American pit bull terrier and what that may say about my own mate choices or how I want other people to see me. That's a little too close to home!