Many people believe that a person’s pet preferences reveal something about their personality. Indeed, a number of academic studies have found that there are meaningful differences in the personalities of those who consider themselves to be either a “dog person” or a “cat person”. A study a few years ago found that self-identified “dog people” and “cat people” differ on all of the well-known Big Five traits. (I have discussed this study in some detail in a previous blog post here.) Other studies on this topic have looked at other personality traits besides the Big Five. A recent and soon to be published study examined whether dog people differ from cat people on dominance related traits, on the theory that people with dominant personalities would prefer more submissive pets (e.g. dogs) than people who are less dominant. A rather remarkable finding was that dog people rated themselves higher on “social dominance orientation”, a trait associated with many kinds of prejudice. I found this surprising because dog people tend to have a somewhat different Big Five trait profile than would be expected for those high in social dominance orientation. Future research could examine whether dog people are actually more prejudiced than cat people and how this might relate to their personality trait profiles.
Many people feel that they have a special affinity for certain kinds of animals, and it is quite common for people to describe themselves as either a dog person or a cat person, although some identify as both. As I noted in a previous article, according to popular stereotypes there are distinct personality differences between cat and dog people and research has actually identified a number of such differences. For example, a study focusing on the Big Five personality traits found that dog people rated themselves as more extraverted, agreeable and conscientious, and as less neurotic and open to experience compared to cat people. The reasons for these differences are not well understood, but a plausible explanation is that people prefer companion animals that have behavioural characteristics compatible with their own traits. However, there is some debate about whether people prefer animals that match their own traits, or if they prefer those that complement them, that is have opposite traits in some respects. In my previous article, I suggested that the Big Five profiles of cat people and dog people respectively might in some respects make them a good match for these particular animals. For example, people who are sociable, warm and self-disciplined may find dogs to be a good match to their personalities, whereas people who are more retiring and laidback may feel more comfortable with cats. One survey of pet owners found that people tended to rate cats as more hostile and less friendly than dogs (i.e. dogs are rated as more agreeable animals), and that both dog and cat owners were more satisfied with pets who were similar to themselves in interpersonal warmth (Zeigler-Hill & Highfill, 2010). On the other hand, the same study found that cat owners (but not dog owners) had a more positive attitude to pets that complemented them in terms of dominance. That is, dominant owners preferred submissive cats and vice versa. Perhaps a person’s preference for either matching or complementary traits in animals varies depending on the nature of the traits involved.
An interesting and soon to be published new paper (Alba & Haslam, in press) presents an argument that complementary traits related to dominance can help explain whether a person self-identifies as either a dog or a cat person. Specifically, the authors argue that people with dominant traits prefer submissive animals as companions, whereas those who are not so dominant might place less value on submissiveness in animal companions. Because, dogs tend to be submissive and obedient to their owners, while cats are not, they theorised that dog people will manifest more dominant traits than cat people.
To test their hypothesis, the authors compared self-identified cat and dog people on four traits related to dominance. These traits are social dominance orientation, competitiveness, interpersonal dominance (i.e. assertiveness) and narcissism. Social dominance orientation (SDO), which I intend to focus on here, refers to an ideological preference for hierarchy between groups. Specifically, it implies a belief that inequality between groups is natural and desirable. For example, people high in SDO endorse statements like “some groups of people are simply inferior to others,” whereas people low in SDO agree that “all people should be given an equal chance in life.”
A particular strength of this study was that the authors replicated their initial findings by testing two separate samples of people fourteen months apart. There has been a great deal of discussion among research psychologists in recent times about the importance of replication. One suggestion that has been advanced is that researchers ideally should attempt to replicate their own findings in order to reduce the chance of mistaking fluke results for real findings. Additionally, each of the two samples tested were fairly large with over 500 participants each. Hence, the design of the study is very solid in these respects.
The authors found that in both samples dog people scored higher than cat people on the traits of SDO and of competitiveness, but there were no differences between the two groups in assertiveness or narcissism. This seems to provide partial support for the authors’ theory that people with more dominant traits, in some respects at least, prefer dogs over cats, because the submissive nature of dogs complements the owner’s desire for dominance.
These findings have a number of possible implications. Firstly, because SDO is associated with a preference for hierarchy and a desire to feel superior, it suggests that dog people might have a hierarchical view of human relations with animals, such that they might be more likely to see animals as inferior to humans. If this is the case, it might suggest that cat people have a more egalitarian view of animals? Previous research has found that people high in SDO are more willing to support exploitation of animals in general (Dhont & Hodson, 2014). Does this mean that cat people are more likely to support animal rights?
SDO is also associated with various kinds of prejudice, such as racism, sexism, and so on. Hence, it is possible that dog people might be more prone to prejudice than cat people. It is important to note that Alba and Haslam did not test this directly, so this is not certain at this time, but would be an interesting subject for further research.
As noted earlier, a previous study (Gosling, Sandy, & Potter, 2010) found noticeable differences between dog people and cat people in their Big Five personality profiles. One thing I found puzzling about the results of Alba and Haslam’s study is that based on the Big Five profile of dog people, I would not expect them to be particularly high in SDO. Previous research has found SDO tends to be associated with a pattern of low openness to experience and low agreeableness (Heaven & Bucci, 2001). Low openness to experience in SDO manifests in a preference for maintaining the status quo (e.g. male dominance over women, white dominance over minorities) while low agreeableness in SDO manifests as a lack of sympathy or compassion for people lower down in the hierarchy. Additionally, people high in SDO tend to be low in certain aspects of conscientiousness, such as following rules and behaving in a socially proper manner. High agreeableness and conscientiousness are also associated with obedience to authority and conformity to social norms (Bègue et al., 2014) whereas SDO tends to be associated with aggressive self-interest. While dog people do tend to be lower in openness to experience than cat people, they also tend to be higher in agreeableness and conscientiousness, which does not seem altogether compatible with the hard-heartedness and disregard for social norms associated with SDO. Please note that I am not saying I think the study results are wrong, just that they seem to present a puzzle.
In order to resolve why dog people in general seem to be higher than cat people in agreeableness and conscientiousness on the one hand, yet apparently also higher in SDO on the other, further studies examining all these traits in the same samples would be needed. It is possible that dog people might be higher in SDO because they are also high in traits that overlap not only with SDO but with their Big Five traits as well. A trait that has these characteristics is Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). RWA is an ideological trait that involves belief in conventional/traditional values, and in the importance of submitting to authority, as well as dislike of people who are seen as threatening the social order by violating social norms (Akrami & Ekehammar, 2006). RWA shares some similarities with SDO but has some important differences as well. Both RWA and SDO are associated with low openness to experience, but unlike SDO, RWA does not have a particular association with low agreeableness and tends to be associated with higher conscientiousness. Hence, RWA seems to have a somewhat better fit to the typical dog person profile with the latter’s combination of low openness to experience, and higher agreeableness and conscientiousness. Both SDO and RWA are associated with prejudice although for somewhat different reasons. People high in SDO want to maintain a position of superiority in relation to other groups, whereas people high in RWA feel threatened by people who do not conform to traditional values. This is potentially relevant to a person’s reasons for preferring dogs over cats. People who are high in SDO may well prefer a dog as a pet because they want to exert their dominance over a submissive animal. However, a person high in RWA might prefer a dog because they consider obedience to authority to be a good thing in itself and so naturally feel more comfortable with an obedient animal such as a dog rather than one does whatever it likes such as a cat.
One possible explanation for Alba and Haslam’s findings, and I admit this is quite speculative, is that higher SDO in dog people compared to cat people might be due to conceptual overlap between SDO and RWA. That is, some people who are high in RWA also tend to be higher in SDO as well. However, it is possible that differences between cat and dog people in RWA are more primary than differences in SDO. This could be tested in future studies by including measures of both variables, and statistically controlling for their overlap. If my hypothesis is correct, differences in SDO between cat and dog people would be reduced or even disappear when statistically adjusting for differences in RWA, but differences in RWA would remain when adjusting for SDO. If this turned out to be true it might also imply that people prefer pets that generally match rather than complement their personality. That is, people high in RWA tend to be obedient themselves and so are drawn to obedient animals, whereas people low in RWA place less value on obedience and this might be reflected in their pet preferences.
RWA, like SDO is also associated with general prejudice, so if it is true that dog people tend to be more authoritarian than cat people then it is also possible that they are generally more predisposed to be prejudiced, particularly against people they see as not conforming to social norms. Future studies could test this by including measures of well-studied forms of prejudice such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. However, one specific prejudice that I don’t think has been formally studied yet is whether dog people are generally prejudiced against cats and the people who love them. There seems to be a common perception of many dog lovers that they intensely dislike cats for some reason. If this stereotype is accurate, then it would be helpful to try to tease out just why this is the case.
Faithful Fido or fickle Felix: what determines our pet preferences? by Nick Haslam and Beatrice Alba. The authors discuss their study in some detail.
Are you a "dog person" or a "cat person?" New research finds the two have different personality traits. Press release about an independent and as yet unpublished study finding that cat people are actually more intelligent than dog people. I wrote a post recently defending this study against some harsh and I believe unfounded criticism.
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Akrami, N., & Ekehammar, B. (2006). Right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation: Their roots in Big-Five Personality Factors and facets. Journal of Individual Differences, 27(3), 117-126. doi: 10.1027/1614-0001.27.3.117
Alba, B., & Haslam, N. (in press). Dog people and cat people differ on dominance-related traits. Anthrozoos, in press. doi: citeulike-article-id:13243066
Bègue, L., Beauvois, J.-L., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J., & Duke, A. A. (2014). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm. Journal of Personality, in press. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12104
Dhont, K., & Hodson, G. (2014). Why do right-wing adherents engage in more animal exploitation and meat consumption? Personality and Individual Differences, 64(0), 12-17. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.002
Gosling, S. D., Sandy, C. J., & Potter, J. (2010). Personalities of Self-Identified Dog People and Cat People. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 23(3), 213-222. doi: 10.2752/175303710x12750451258850
Heaven, P. C. L., & Bucci, S. (2001). Right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation and personality: an analysis using the IPIP measure. European Journal of Personality, 15(1), 49-56. doi: 10.1002/per.389
Zeigler-Hill, V., & Highfill, L. (2010). Applying the interpersonal circumplex to the behavioral styles of dogs and cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 124(3–4), 104-112. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.02.012