Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hal Herzog responds to THSP readers

In September I posted an alert to THSP readers about Dr. Hal Herzog's new book Some We Love, Some Hate, Some We Eat. Readers were invited to post their questions to Hal and he agreed to answer them in a follow-up post. We only had three queries posted, so Hal was kind enough to address each one individually and they are posted below. Also, the free copy of his new book (generously arranged by Rachel Elinsky of HarperCollins) was awarded by random drawing to commenter Virginia Welle who teaches in Wisconsin.

Here are the posted questions, followed by Dr. Herzog's responses and a special note to high school psychology teachers at the end:

Dr. Herzog,
Animal research is something that fascinates and sometimes sparks ire among my students. The title of your book implies that you've got some insight as to why we feel so passionately about the treatment of some animals (e.g. pets), but not others (e.g. cockroaches). What can I tell my students about this seeming inconsistency? -- Mrs. Welle

Dear Mrs. Welle,
The reason that we care so much for some animals and so little about others is a matter of both nature and nurture. First the nature part. Ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz argued decades ago that humans find some animal cute because they have facial characteristics that bring out our parental instincts. Puppies, kittens and baby seals and Mickey Mouse are irresistible because they have big eyes, disproportionately large heads, and soft features. On the other hand, there is good evidence that our fear of snakes is an evolutionary relic passed down from our Stone Age ancestors.
However, culture can override our biological impulses. A cute puppy which an American would find adorable is seen as a tasty dinner entrĂ©e in parts of Asia. And if you live in Sri Lanka whether you have a pet dog is almost completely determined by your religion: fewer than 5% of Muslim homes contain a pet dog compared to over 90% of Buddhist homes! That’s were nurture comes in.

Shana said...
This topic is great and I can't wait to read the book. I own a ferret and just recently got a puppy. My in-laws love the dog, but try to keep as far away from the ferret as humanly possible. I find myself identifying with the topic, and I wonder to what extent these preferences and aversions are affected by experiences and to what extent they are affected by biological predispositions.

Shana – See my response to Mrs. Welle’s above. It addresses the question of biological dispositions. However, it is also true that different people have different likes and dislikes in animals. For example, while most people hate snakes because of a biological predisposition, I have always been attracted to them. I collected snakes when I was a kid, and I also conducted a lot of snake behavior research in the early part of my career. By the way, most people with snake aversions have never had a traumatic experience with snakes, and studies by Gordon Burghardt at the University of Tennessee indicate that this is also true Japanese monkeys who are snake phobic.
One thing that determines what type of animals people like is how they were brought up. Children raised with dogs tend to become “dog people” when they are adults and vice versa with “cat people.” Some studies have shown that there are personality differences in “dog people” and “cat people.” Cat people tend to be a bit more neurotic but also more open to new experiences. However, these differences tend to be fairly small.

Anonymous said ...

I have had my cats for about six years. I understand the attachment to them more than other cats, but here is something I do not understand--why do I care about my cats more than other humans.

This is a tough question as I don’t really know your situation, but here is what we do know about attachment to pets. First, people living alone are more likely to be highly attached to their companion animals. This is interesting because people living with children at home are (a) more likely to have a pet living in their house, but (b) are less likely to be highly attached to their pet. This suggests that for some people, pets are, indeed, child substitutes. This was certainly true of my wife and I before we had kids. We absolutely doted on Molly, our wonderful black Lab.
Second, while some people argue that “animal people” tend not to like other people, in my experience, this is usually not the case. In fact, studies consistently show that people who are empathetic toward animals also show more empathy towards other people. (You will not be surprised to learn that women are generally more empathetic than men and are also more concerned about the protection and well-being of animals.)

Message to high school psychology teachers from Hal.

I think that we can learn a lot about human nature by studying the psychology of our relationships with other species. These include big issues like the nature-nurture issue, how we make moral judgments, and why human thinking is so often illogical. While these themes run through my book, the material most relevant to psychology teachers is in Chapter 2 (The Importance of Being Cute: Why We Think What We Think About Creatures That Don’t Think About Us), Chapter 3 (Pet-O-Philia: Why Do Humans (And Only Humans) Love Pets), and Chapter 10 (The Carnivorous Yahoo Within Ourselves: Dealing With Moral Inconsistency).
In addition, you might want to check out Animals and Us, the blog on human-animal interactions that I write for Psychology Today.

-- posted by Steve

1 comment:

Mrs. Welle said...

This is great! Thanks...and thanks for the book! I'm looking forward to reading it.