I take lots of photos on my travels like most of us. Except, the majority of my holiday pictures are of the local dogs! When I walk down a street I’m often not looking at the people, but dogs. If you find yourself thinking that you care more about your dog than you do about humans… you are not alone.
A series of experiments by philosophers and psychologists have shown some people, in some situations, care more about dogs than humans.
Is this as shocking as it might seem at first? Dogs are loyal and loving creatures and we humans love them in return. Dogs like Hachiko are capable of the most amazing demonstrations of dedication – so much so that the Shibuya statue was erected to memorialize the bond.
A dog is a member of our family. They may not be human, but we have a bond formed over years and we know our loyal dog loves us and depends on us. We can see the family ties in the language we use about our dogs – fur babies or pet parents.
A dog isn’t just “a dog” to those that know and love them. They are a personality, an open heart, a beloved friend and member of the family. We know our dogs intimately and the bond we share is indescribable.
Facing the dilemma
How do we go about measuring the values we place on people and dogs? Psychologists, researchers, and moral philosophers have devised lots of different tests – from the medical to thought experiments. These try to measure and explain the differences in how people care about other humans or their dogs.
In one experiment by Professor Jack Levin, the dilemma is simple but heart-breaking. You are in the street and both your pet and a human step out in front of a bus that is traveling so fast it will surely be fatal. You can only save one of them. Who do you save?
The answer isn’t to condemn people for making the “wrong” decision. But moral philosophers are interested in what the differences are and what it means. For instance, does it change if the human is a foreign tourist, or a member of your family? Is the dog yours, or someone else’s?
The result was that 40% of people would choose to save their pet over a stranger! Happily it’s not something that will be tested in the real world. But it shows the incredible bond people have with their dogs and how much we value them.When faced with a life-threatening situation where you save either your pet or a stranger, 40% of people would choose to save their pet! What would you choose? Click To Tweet
The research also showed that the closer the relationship to the human in question got, the more likely they were to save them. When the human was described as a close friend or family member only 2% chose to save their dog.
Why do some people care more about dogs?
For dog lovers it doesn’t seem surprising that a lot of people would choose their dog over a stranger. We might rationally understand that on paper a human life is more important or more worthy. But our emotions towards our pet say otherwise.
This is also shown in the follow-up to the study when people were asked why they made the choice they did. Over a quarter of people couldn’t really explain why – but they stood by their decision. When choosing the dog people made heated, emotional statements like “I love my dog” or “My dog is part of my family.”
When choosing the human, people were more rational and distant or even feeling shame – “I hate to think what people would say if I failed to save the person.”
Dogs get more sympathy than adults
There’s another experiment where people were shown a fake newspaper article about an attack with a baseball bat that left the victim unconscious and with a broken leg. After reading the article the subjects were asked questions about how they sympathetic they felt and how distressed they were.
There was a catch… there were four different newspaper reports shown, with the difference being the victim. The victim was either a 30-year-old human, a six-year-old dog, a one-year-old child, or a puppy.
People were upset by all the reports. But they were equally distressed about the dog, puppy, and child, and less so about the adult. Psychology Today
What does this mean?
Similarities between dogs and children
In the case of the adult being attacked with a baseball bat you might feel there were mitigating circumstances, that somehow someone could “deserve” something like that. But a dog, puppy, or child, could have done nothing. They are vulnerable, innocent and simply being treated cruelly.
For me, because dogs cannot speak I feel an instinct to protect them, or to speak out on their behalf when they are suffering. I have a special affinity for dogs and they return that attention too. They always want to play and follow me! It’s this bond with dogs that inspired me to make the film Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.
Another study shows that women’s brains reacted similarly to pictures of children and of dogs. They call on a protective emotion in us.
A dog’s role in the household as a family member is as a dependent. An adult dog is still much more akin to a child than an adult. Their age matters less. A lot of people refer to all dogs of any age as “puppies” because at heart they are just big kids. It seems natural to put them at the same level as children.
Like children, dogs have a simple innocence about the world that is inspiring.
Dogs are incapable of the most horrible human emotions. They are such pure souls. They have no ulterior motives, guile, cruelty or deception – beyond perhaps a look of “I have no idea what happened to that food that was just on your plate but is now mysteriously vanished!”
Our pups embody the values of love, loyalty, devotion and joy. Those are values we sometimes feel we are missing in life.
Which is why the story of Hachi has such a huge impact on everyone. Hachi shows us the beautiful simplicity of being open with your emotions and following your heart.
Do you sometimes feel more sympathy for dogs than for humans? What about all the wonderful qualities dogs have? It’s those qualities I want to explore, so we can all learn how to live the most fulfilling life, with Hachi as our guide. Let me know in the comments!