BUT IN 2017, A GROUP OF STATISTICIANS FROM THE RAND CORPORATION DID A PROJECT TO DEMONSTRATE THE POSITIVE IMPACT OF COMPANION ANIMALS ON CHILD DEVELOPMENT USING THE CALIFORNIA HEALTH INTERVIEW SURVEY AS DATA. IT FOUND THAT CHILDREN RAISED IN FAMILIES WITH PETS HAVE BETTER GENERAL HEALTH, THEY’RE MORE OBEDIENT, MORE PHYSICALLY ACTIVE, LESS MOODY, HAD FEWER BEHAVIOURAL AND LEARNING PROBLEMS. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT?
They did find those things but they also found that once you include the socioeconomic differences, the kids with pets are more likely to come from wealthier intact families. They’re more likely to live in homes where the parents actually own the home, as opposed to renting or living in a trailer.They’re more likely to be white, in a country in which there are great racial and socioeconomic disparities in health coverage.They are also more likely to have healthier parents. So, this relationship between wealth and health is one of many factors that are associated with better health and happiness. In the grand scheme of things, pet ownership makes a relatively small difference in how kids turn out; although, it may play a big role in some kids’ lives.
WHAT DO YOU THINK EXPLAINS THE MISMATCH BETWEEN THE RESEARCH TO DATE AND OUR INTUITION THAT PETS ARE GENERALLY GOOD FOR YOUR WELL- BEING?
An idea by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, called the ‘availability heuristic’. The availability heuristic says that when we think about a problem, we shortcut to the things that come to mind first. In this particular case it’s down to media coverage.The media has really pushed this idea that pet owners are better off than non-pet owners. I recently turned to Google to examine media stories related to the pet effect. Using the Google News search engine, I located 81 news items on the pet effect between 2010 and 2020. I searched using the phrase “the impact of pets on human health and happiness”. The articles fell into three categories – the good news, the bad news and the balanced news. 70% of the articles fell into the feel-good category. The media and the pet products industry has really pushed this idea that pet ownership will save money on your medical bills and make you happier. And this, of course, is what people want to hear based on our own personal experiences with pets.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE WITH PETS?
When I tell my wife I have found yet another article which did not show the expected findings around children’s wellbeing and pets she says: “Well, I don’t believe you. I think you’re wrong because I know from our experience with our own kids…”. To me, what’s really fascinating is the mismatch between our personal experiences and what the research currently says. On the one hand, we have this body of research, most of which does not show these benefits, but then we have our personal experience, which often conflicts with that.There’s a mismatch between what the public believes, what the research shows and our personal experience.
FINALLY, HOW WOULD YOU SUMMARISE WHAT OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH ANIMALS CAN TELL US ABOUT HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY?
I think it tells us a couple things. This gets to Daniel Kahneman’s work on thinking fast and thinking slow. It’s that our interactions with animals; the way we think about animals is very complicated. And it’s complex, in part because it’s moderated by two different systems and one of these is intuitive: it’s fast and it’s unconscious. The other is more thoughtful: it’s cognitive, it’s slower. Especially when we think about moral issues associated with animals, often our thinking, our moral judgments and our behaviour are more motivated by gut level decision making or the ‘fast part’, as Daniel Kahneman puts it. Then there is the slow rational part. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, our moral lives are this uneasy relationship between our head and our heart. Often our emotions take over. It’s no wonder that we have this mismatch of factors affecting our judgments. I think this applies in all aspects of all facets of human thinking – especially moral thinking, not just to animals, but to other people as well. Animals can tell us a lot about the human condition.