Dog, Cats, and Humans: Shared Emotions Act As "Social Glue"

New study shows how degree of attachment relates to the attribution of emotions.

Posted Feb 19, 2018

Emotions are gifts from our ancestors and serve as "social glue" in different cultures.

In The Emotional Lives of Animals and elsewhere, I've written about why different emotions have evolved (not if they have evolved) in many different nonhuman animals (animals). I suggested that among the reasons why emotions have evolved, one function is that they serve as "social glue." In an essay called "Animal Emotions and Beastly Passions: We're Not the Only Emotional Beings," I wrote: "Emotions have evolved as adaptations in numerous species and they serve as a social glue to bond animals with one another. Emotions also catalyze and regulate a wide variety of social encounters among friends and competitors and permit animals to protect themselves adaptively and flexibly using various behavior patterns in a wide variety of venues."

One function of glue is to cause items to bond, and there is no reason why shared emotions can't also cause living beings to bond. This is why a research essay by Bingtau Su and her colleagues called "How Japanese companion dog and cat owners’ degree of attachment relates to the attribution of emotions to their animals" caught my eye. This important paper, the first of its kind in Japan, is available for free online, so I hope what I write below will whet your appetite for more.  

To conduct their study the researchers used the “Pet Bonding Scale” (PBS) developed by David Anderson, which is used to study the level of bonding between humans and other animals, and analyzed 546 questionnaires (50.5 percent men, 49.5 percent women). The researchers "aimed to assess companion animal owners’ attribution of six primary (anger, joy, sadness, disgust, fear and surprise) and four secondary (shame, jealousy, disappointment and compassion) emotions to their dogs and cats, as well as how the degree of attachment related to such attribution of emotions from a Japanese cultural perspective."

The researchers learned that "more than half of the respondents reported that they could often or sometimes attribute primary emotions of joy (96.2 percent), surprise (85.9 percent), anger (80.6 percent), fear (75.7 percent), sadness (61.9 percent) and disgust (57.7 percent) and secondary emotions of compassion (73.1 percent) and jealousy (56.2 percent) to their companion animals and [the] emotions of joy and sadness were more frequently attributed to dogs than to cats." They also reported that when compared to males, females "were more likely to attribute emotions of anger, joy, disgust, fear, surprise, jealousy and disappointment to their companion animals."1 Furthermore, they discovered that "dog owners were more attached to their dogs than cat owners were to their cats, although a stronger correlation between the degree of attachment and the attribution of joy existed among cat owners."

Cultural and gender differences in how people view dogs and cats

In addition to differences in how people viewed dogs and cats, the researchers note there are cultural and gender differences in how people relate to their companion dogs and cats. They also relate these differences to the results from a study that Bingtau Su led in China, and discuss how animal welfare issues may play a role in the attribution of emotions to companion animals. For example, they write, "...in Japanese and Chinese culture, the feeling of compassion reflects the principle of benevolence, one of the five basic elements of Confucianism. Dogs and cats are regarded as sentient beings and as having the nature of compassion to all misfortunes. Japanese and Chinese people therefore tend to give more anthropomorphic descriptions of animal emotions than Western population."

They also note that their results generally agree with studies done in European countries, but differ from those done in China, and that the degree of attachment is more important for Japanese and European people's attributions of emotions to cats and dogs than it is for Chinese people. Concerning gender differences, they observe that women attributed more emotions than men, females showed a higher level of attachment to their companion animals, and people living with dogs showed more attachment than people living with cats. 

I was really taken in by what the researchers wrote about cross-cultural comparisons early in their essay, because it's essential to have a more complete picture of what variables might underlie these differences. In Western countries, people living with companion animals attribute diverse emotions to their animals, though more so to dogs. However, in China, a country in which people don't know much about animal welfare, no such differences have been recorded.

They also highlight how ideology might influence the ways in which humans attribute emotions to companion animals when they note that they selected Japan because the Japanese are more open-minded to different cultures. They write that the Japanese tend to "appreciate the Western values of human rights and freedom and, simultaneously, respect the traditional Confucian and Buddhist values of harmony and humble behavior." They also note that Japanese people are influenced by collectivism and do not pay much attention to foundations or universal laws. They also write about how Shintoism "advocates reciprocal care and compassionate relationships between humans and animals," and Confucianism, in which symbiosis between humans and other animals is recognized, influences attitudes toward animals and animal emotions. Buddhists, they note, regard other animals as sentient beings, and many modern Japanese believe "animals have souls, emotions and feelings, even after their death." They also "regard both companion dogs and cats as equally important, and both of them are associated with the spirit world."

This discussion helped me to more fully understand and appreciate their major findings from a cultural perspective.

I learned a lot from reading this essay. The cross-cultural comparisons are invaluable, and the results of this seminal study show that there are few easy answers to questions centering on why people bond with other animals and the role played by the attribution of shared emotions to these sentient beings. 

How shared emotions can help us bridge the empathy gap

I hope that future studies will focus on gender and cross-cultural comparisons and how different attitudes are influenced by a broad spectrum of variables, including the role of primary and secondary emotions in how people relate to other nonhuman animals, not only companion animals. I hope that what we learn about our relationships with companion animals will be used to bridge the empathy gap, so that other animals will also benefit from our attribution of emotions to them. There is no doubt that they also are sentient, emotional beings. It's also likely that shared emotions among individuals of different nonhuman species are important for how they interact and bond with one another. 

I look forward to writing about future studies that focus on the nature of human-animal relationships and how and why they form in the ways they do. Kudos to Bingtau Su and her colleagues for conducting their most valuable research. Their important results clearly show that shared primary and secondary emotions serve as social glue to bond individuals of different species to one another.

1In Western countries, "female owners are more likely to attribute emotions to their animals than are male owners [19, 23]..."

2In Western countries, "animal owners are more likely to attribute emotions to their dogs than to their cats [19].

References

Anderson DC. Assessing the human-animal bond: A compendium of actual measures: Purdue University Press; 2007.

Bekoff, Marc. 2018. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Su B, Koda N, Martens P (2018) How Japanese companion dog and cat owners’ degree of attachment relates to the attribution of emotions to their animals. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0190781. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0190781

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