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Do We Project Our Own Personalities Onto Our Dogs' Behavior?

Humans can see some, but not all, of their own emotional biases in their dogs.

Adrian Scottow photo
Source: Adrian Scottow photo

Consider the situation where you walk into your house only to find your dog is standing next to a puddle of urine. The dog looks at you, hangs his head low and stares down at its feet. How would you interpret the dog's behavior? Is this dog acting as if he were feeling guilty? Some new research published in the journal Anthrozoos suggests that to your interpretation of your dog's behavior in this case may actually be a more accurate reflection of your own personality rather than a good description of which emotions the dog may actually be experiencing.

Christina Brown and Julia McLean of the Department of Psychology at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, wanted to test to see if people project their own personality traits onto their dogs. These researchers feel that this may be part of the process by which we anthropomorphize animals. Anthropomorphism refers to our tendency to treat animals as if they are much like humans, and have very much the same thoughts, behaviors and emotions that people do. They spelled out their purpose by saying, "But when we anthropomorphize animals, what specific human-like traits do we choose to see in them? We predicted that people’s own personality may be used to 'fill in the gaps' of ambiguous animal behavior." The investigators were fairly conservative and pointed out, "We want to emphasize that our prediction was not that humans cannot form accurate impressions of animal dispositions. In fact, there is considerable evidence of consensus and accuracy in human perceptions of animal personality… Instead, we predicted that some degree of [personality] projection can occur when humans interpret the ambiguous behavior of novel animals."

The specific personality traits which these researchers focused on included the tendency for a person to suffer guilt in various situations, the predisposition to feel lonely, and the person's propensity toward feelings of anxiety.

These scientists conducted two web-based studies, and although the sample sizes are relatively small for personality research (41 and 158 participants respectively) an awful lot of data was obtained from each individual in the form of assessing their own personality, attitudes toward dogs and other animals, and interpretation of various canine behaviors. Their statistical analyses are often rather dense and complex, so for the sake of clarity, I will focus mainly on the highlights of their findings.

The researchers' predictions that we project our own personalities onto the behavior of dogs were only confirmed for one personality trait, namely the tendency to feel guilt. This means that when presented with a series of ambiguous behaviors (such as when after knocking over and breaking a plate, the dog then avoids eye contact with its owner) they found that people who are prone to feeling guilty in their own lives are also likely to perceive that the dogs are feeling guilt in such a situation. There were no consistent associations between personal feelings of loneliness or anxiety and individual's perceptions of these traits in dogs. However, people who are prone to guilt feelings did also tend to see higher levels of anxiety in ambiguous dog behaviors (such as when a dog is pacing back and forth in front of the front door without any apparent reason).

In a second experiment the scientists also addressed another, secondary, question, which was an attempt to see if considering the psychological state of dogs increases support for animal welfare issues in a broad sense, such as not supporting the use of animals as research subjects, or opposing the use of animal products (such as a source of fur or leather for clothing). Once again feelings of guilt seem to carry the day. The researchers found that participants who reported seeing more guilt or anxiety in dogs also supported animal rights to a greater extent.

There was an interesting quirk in this second experiment, in that some of the participants were asked to judge the dog behaviors before they expressed their opinions about animal welfare issues, while others stated their opinion about animal rights only after the ambiguous behavior of dogs. Here it was found that if individuals first considered the behavior and the emotions of dogs before they were asked about animal welfare issues, then they were much more likely to support animal rights positions. It is almost as if this initial experience of considering what was going on in the dog's mind tuned the person to feel more empathy for the animal.

However if we now return to the main question these studies were concerned with, the researchers summarize their findings saying, "Thus, our tests of correspondence between personality and dog perceptions suggest that projection of personal characteristics onto dogs can occur, but not for all personality traits. For example, when dogs show nonverbal submission after misbehaving, their behavior may have just the right amount of ambiguity—that is, it is easy to interpret the action as indicating guilt, but also easy to see it as a learned response—for people’s own dispositions to shape their perceptions of dogs." Or to put it in a simpler way, suppose we observe a dog's behavior in an ambiguous situation. At least when it comes to feelings of guilt, when we are unsure of what our dog is feeling or why he is behaving in a particular way, we have a tendency to perceive the dog's behavior according to our own personality predispositions. If it is likely that we would have felt guilty had we been a dog in such a situation, these data suggest that we are apt to project our emotional predisposition and conclude that our dog must be feeling guilt as well.

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

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Data from: Christina M. Brown and Julia L. McLean (2015). Anthropomorphizing dogs: Projecting one's own personality and consequences for supporting animal rights. Anthrozoos, 28 (1), 73 – 86.