A few friends, well aware of how completely obsessed I am with all things dog-related, have been sending me this recent New York Times op-ed about whether or not dogs are people. The answer that Emory neuroeconomist, Gregory Berns, gives is “yes.” At least the kind of limited personhood we might grant to small children. I was hoping to love this piece but instead felt frustrated that the findings seem to rely more on—to borrow a phrase—the seductive appeal of neuroscience, rather than any empirical basis.
Berns begins by noting limitations in understanding animal emotion, disparaging the “behaviorism” in animal research. He tries to get around these restraints by putting dogs in an fMRI machine. After some trial and error (that’s adorable to visualize), Berns explored activation in the caudate nucleus—a brain region associated with reward, memory, and learning—focusing specifically on the caudate’s role in anticipating things that we enjoy, as well as its functional and structural similarity across dogs and humans. He writes in the critical two paragraphs:
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.
First, it seems an empirical and philosophical stretch to consider “experiences positive emotions” as a coherent and plausible criterion for personhood. I’m also unconvinced that caudate activity is solid enough ground to infer sentience, since rats have a functioning caudate that responds to rewards.
Second, it’s not at all clear to me why neuroscience is required to make this conclusion. If we want to give personhood to animals that experience positive emotions, then why go through the trouble and expense of putting dogs in an fMRI machine? It’s pretty obvious to me when my dog is happy. He perks up, he wags his tail, he grins, he looks at me lovingly when I scratch his ears, he sighs contentedly when he chews on bones and other things, and so on. I don’t need to examine activation in his caudate to realize that he’s experiencing positive emotions.
It could be argued that we can’t actually observe the positive experiences in dogs—we can only make inferences from behavioral similarities. And in that case we’d want to look deeper into the subjective experience that dogs might have. Neuroscience is a tempting alternative, but it’s a shallow one—it only feels more scientific without providing much payoff.
What fMRI scans tell us is that certain regions of the brain receive more blood at certain times during a task. So if we see more blood flow to the caudate when dogs look at their owners or see a hand signal associated with food, we infer that the caudate is more active. But how is caudate activation enough to infer something about what dogs experience?
We still haven’t observed any emotion, but rather brain activation. You could appeal to structural or functional homology, as Bern’s does (i.e. “dogs and humans both have caudates that respond to similar things, so they must feel similarly, too”), but notice we’re no better off than where we started. We’ve simply replaced one assumption with another. If the first (“dogs and people both smile, so dogs feel like people do when they smile”) is unjustifiable, so must be the neural one. We’ve learned nothing new about what dogs experience, but rather that dogs show activity in reward regions when they see things they enjoy (which, like, duh?). We’ve only bought the sexy feeling that the science we’ve done is somehow more legitimate.
Which leads me to my last pet peeve (hah) about the OpEd—the constant suggestion that neuroscience has triumphed over the constraints of behaviorism, while ignoring that psychology has been looking beyond behavior just fine for a long time. Animal psychology has been no exception, here. I know of and have been involved in a lot of comparative cognition research with animals (the operative word being “cognition,” not “behavior”). I have good friends who work with Brian Hare at Duke, the co-director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke and author of The Genius of Dogs, and my undergraduate advisor is currently diving into dog cognition, herself. There is a lot of great research that explores how canines think, not just behave. All without the aid of fMRI’s.
fMRI is a great tool, no doubt. But it’s not the only way to learn about the mind, and it certainly has it’s limits. These limits do not go away, however, when looking at other animals. So even though I love my dog (a lot), he’s probably not a person (though I might treat him like one, sometimes). If he is, though, it’s going to take more evidence than this study to convince me.
This piece was originally published on the author’s personal blog, which he encourages you to follow.
As you leave our lab and take a narrow walkway down to one of the main streets in Durham, you pass through a small parking lot and a few chain restaurants. Yesterday afternoon, that parking lot was packed tightly with a long line of patrons waiting to buy a $1 sub for Jimmy John’s “Customer Appreciation Day.”
If the crowd was any indication, the promotion was a success (although it’s hard to tell how “appreciated” the customers felt without distributing some surveys—maybe next time…). It was clear, however, that they were willing to wait an incredibly long time to get a cheap sub. And that might very well change where they get lunch in the future.
In standard economics, the way we decide to spend our money reflects how useful or enjoyable we expect a product or service to be. We pay five dollars for a sub because we expect to get five dollars of value from eating it, and so on. But findings in psychology and behavioral economics suggest that the choices we make can do more than simply reveal our preferences—they shape them, too.
One classic study by Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith showed the effect that actions can have on our preferences. Participants in their experiment performed a mind-numbing task and were asked to describe it to another person while pretending to have enjoyed it. But there was one crucial difference between two groups: They were paid either a low or high amount of money to do this. Compared to those who were well compensated, the participants who were paid a small amount of money enjoyed the experiment more and reported a higher likelihood of returning to perform a similar experiment.
Festinger and Carlsmith concluded that their low-paid participants experienced a dissonance between the amount of money they were paid and their own willingness to perform the task. And since they couldn’t take back their efforts, they justified their behavior by increasing their enjoyment of the task. Here, we could say quite a bit about what Festinger and Carlsmith called “cognitive dissonance,” but let’s instead focus on how this affected their participants’ later behavior.
When we look back on our past actions, we tend to ignore situational factors and assume instead that we made that decision for good reasons. This actually changes how we feel about those decisions later, and that can change our future behavior. This process, where we look to our past behaviors to guide our future decisions, is called self-herding. To provide a simple example, imagine that you got a particularly flattering evaluation last Friday at work. You were feeling pretty happy about this and decided to celebrate by inviting some co-workers to a bar for a drink. The next Friday, as you’re considering what to do that evening, you might look back on your past excursion and decide to do it again. You look to the past behavior (going out for drinks) rather than the situational factors (the glowing report) that led you to the behavior.
So the people waiting in a long line for a cheap sub that everyone seems excited about might look back tomorrow and like Jimmy John’s more than they otherwise would have. Though they might look herded to one another, standing in a line that stretches out the door and into the parking lot, it’s how they’re herded to themselves that matters in the long run.
Chapter 2 in Predictably Irrational and Chapter 10 in the Upside of Irrationality
Dan Ariely and Michael Norton (2007), “How Actions Create—Not Just Reveal—Preferences.” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences. Vol. 12, No. 1: 13 – 16.