Do Dog People and Cat People Differ in Terms of Dominance?

Evidence shows that the personalities of dog versus cat lovers are different.

Posted Mar 18, 2015

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Many people consider themselves to be either a "dog person" or a "cat person," and there is a widespread belief that these two groups of people have different personality characteristics. Psychologists have picked up the challenge to see if people who love dogs or cats truly differ in more than their pet preference. The existing data show that in this instance the popular belief is true, and when we compare dog lovers to cat lovers we find that they are indeed are different, not only in their general personality (click here to read more) but also in more subtle ways, including dating behavior (click here) and even their political preferences (click here).

I got involved in this area of research and reported some of my findings in the book Why We Love the Dogs We Do. The general pattern that I found was that dog owners tend to be more social, interactive, and dominant (in the sense of being forceful, assertive, and self-assured), while cat owners were more introverted, self-contained, and trusting. (People who owned both dogs and cats acted more like dog owners rather than like people who owned only cats.) Some new research by Australian researchers Beatrice Alba from Macquarie University and Nick Haslam from the University of Melbourne has been published in the journal Anthrozoos* and seems to shed further light on the differences in the personalities of dog- and cat-loving people.

One ongoing question has been whether people choose pets that have the same personality traits that they have themselves, or whether they choose pets that complement their personalities. In the first instance, people who have dominant personalities might be expected to choose pets that are more socially dominant and independent in the same way that they are, while in the case of complementarity people who are socially dominant might be expected to choose pets that were more submissive, thus fitting in better with their own current lifestyle and not clashing with their personality. These Australian researchers believed in complementarity. They had the hypothesis that since dogs are more submissive (at least in the sense that they can be easily trained and will respond reliably to commands), dogs would be preferred by people with more dominant personalities. Cats, on the other hand, are more independent and have behaviors that cannot be easily manipulated or controlled, and thus they might clash with the expectations of a dominant personality, leading to the prediction that cat people would not score as highly on a dominance trait.

While previous research, like my own, simply looked at dominance as an overall personality factor, these researchers recognized that dominance comes in a variety of types. One of these is something they call social dominance orientation, which is an ideological belief that there is a dominance hierarchy or set of ranks in any society or social grouping and that such a hierarchy is an appropriate kind of organization for social relationships. Thus someone who is high on this social dominance orientation would be likely to agree with the statement: "It's probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom."

Another form of dominant personality aspect is interpersonal dominance which refers to a tendency to act forcefully and assertively toward others, as distinct from the ideological belief that some individuals are meant to lead and others to follow. These are individuals who would describe themselves as taking control of things or as assuming the role of leader in a group.

Yet another aspect of dominance is competitiveness which concerns the desire to outdo others and show superiority. Competitive individuals would likely agree with statements like "I get satisfaction from competing with others" or "I often try to outperform others."

A final aspect of dominance is called narcissism, and this really has to do with self-perception. People who are high on narcissism have a very high conception of themselves as being superior and are more likely to agree with statements such as "I think I am a special person" or "I am going to be a great person."

Two samples of data were collected with 506 participants in the first study and 528 participants in the second. This was done through an online survey, and although the researchers were Australian, the vast majority of the participants were from the U.S. (probably because individuals were offered a small payment in U.S. funds to complete the set of questionnaires, which took approximately half an hour).

The results were consistent across the two separate samples and confirmed the researchers' predictions at least in part. Dog people were higher in social dominance orientation (indicating that they believed in a hierarchy of control) and also in competitiveness. However there were no differences between cat people and dog people in terms of interpersonal dominance (the tendency to act assertively and aggressively) or in the personality trait of narcissism (which includes grandiose feelings of self-importance).

The conclusions to be reached from this study are interesting. Apparently dog people like the idea that social relationships are structured, based on relative rank, and therefore they are pleased with the fact that dogs are submissive to them, at least to the degree that they obey their commands. Although dog people might view particular interactions with their pet as a competition for control (for example will Lassie really lie down when you order her to do so), there seems to be no evidence that enforcing such control comes with a belief in the prerogative to use force or compulsion (which would mean higher interpersonal dominance, which wasn't found) or because the dog person has some overinflated view of himself which gives him an entitlement to dominate the dog (which would mean higher narcissism, which also wasn't found). To look at the flip side of the coin, the suggestion would be that cat people really don't care about who is in control of the social relationships and interactions that they have with their pet, and they are unwilling to compete with their cat, even to the degree of attempting to gain some kind of obedience to simple commands or conformity to the person's desires for particular behaviors.

The researchers admit that although the results are highly reliable and stable, the effects are small. This suggests that other factors, beyond the two aspects of dominance that they isolated, most probably play a role for selecting a dog or a cat as a pet. However, they conclude that "these findings suggest the preference for one particular pet over another is not a trivial matter of taste, but says something important about people's fundamental personality attributes and ways of seeing the world."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

* Data from: Beatrice Alba and Nick Haslam (2015). "Dog people and cat people differ on dominance-related traits." Anthrozoos, 28 (1), 37–44.

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