Opinion Piece

If I have a new year’s resolution for 2018, it’s to be more open to feedback. Feedback terrifies me, because it’s an opportunity to be told I wasn’t very good at something. And if I’m not very good at something, I have clearly failed at life. But I’m working on it!

I have to admit I was surprised to find that I get a lot of positive feedback too. It’s strange how trying to protect yourself from bad feedback also keeps the good feedback from sinking in too. Here’s something students say to me:

“I like hearing about your opinion, it’s nice to have the benefit of your experience.”

I get this when I’m talking about ethics, or how my personal ontology affects my research (which is a whole other post I have drafted, but is also talked about in my book – which you can still pre-order on Amazon, Waterstones , Blackwells and at the Publisher) It used to make me uncomfortable. I worried that students might take my opinion as fact, or think they had to follow my opinion to get good grades. So when I give students my opinion, I preface it with lots of wiggle words “it’s only my opinion”, “now this isn’t fact” . .  . why precisely?

I don’t want to create a horde of mini-mes when I teach. I’ve never been able to get that project past the ethics committee. But why do I shy away from my opinion? There might well be a gender bias there, and I try to soften my opinion to protect peoples’ feelings. But I think a lot of it is about the hard science bias. Try as I might, I can’t shake the idea that opinions (and those other icky subjective feelingy things) don’t have a place in real science.

But here’s the thing – students like it. They want to know what I think about these topics that they’ve chosen to study. Their studies are important to them. The people who teach them are also important to students. My research group is writing up a paper at the moment which explores aspects of the student-teacher relationship. Students want to feel respected by their teachers, and I think that (occasional) usage of opinion can be one of the ways to do that. When you share something like that with your students, you’re building trust with them. And it’s important to value their opinion too.

I absolutely love having ethics discussions with my students. I love exploring these concepts and sharing ideas. It shouldn’t be so surprising to me that my students enjoy that too.


If Everybody Thought the Same

As a researcher with an interest in personality, I have been accused of anthropomorphising animals in the past. I argue that personality is an outcome of predictable behaviour patterns and statistical distributions. To me this is a perfectly formed argument that has emerged from years of PhD work, but PhDs never made anyone sane. That being said, there’s something in these warnings of anthropomorphism, particularly when we’re interacting with animals.

First off ‘anthropomorphism’ is when you assign human characteristics to non-human objects or animals. (Now, I’ll point out that the traditional definition of this doesn’t specify that it has to be a unique property of humans. For example, having eyes is a characteristic of humans. Is it anthropomorphic to say dogs have eyes? The rant about the definition is for another time). Sometimes, when we interact with animals, we assume they are interpreting the interaction in the same way we are. In essence – that we all think in the same way.

This week a few different posts crossed my virtual desk, all on the subject of different ways of thinking, and it got me thinking (I think).

Firstly: a friend shared this interesting blog post from dog trainer and blogger Michael Blough. It talks about how ‘hugging’ can be unpleasant for dogs and it reminded me about the press surrounding this paper, which came out as ‘stroking is stressful for cats’ and greatly worried my mother.

The advice I gave my mum, and the advice Blough gives his followers, is the same: listen to what your animal is saying. But of course there’s an inherent contradiction in this! How can you listen to your animal when I’m also telling you it doesn’t think like you? How are you supposed to interpret what your pet is saying to you when it’s fundamentally speaking a different language?

I will be the first to say it’s hard and I don’t interpret my animals’ behaviour correctly 100% of the time. I’d argue that anyone who says they’ve never gotten it wrong with an animal is fooling themselves (let me know in the comments if you’re sure you’re a regular Dolittle). However, I’d say I’m right a good 95% of the time and hey, I’m blogging on the internet right? Listen to me, and I’ll give you some tips.

Blough starts with a pic of him hugging his dog. The dog is looking away, eye white is just visible, and you can clearly see the dog is about to leap from his arms. In this case it’s obvious the dog wants to end this form of physical contact.

Now have a pic of me and my dad’s dog receiving a hug.

Me and Rosa
Me and Rosa

This is Rosa and me a few years ago. We’re sitting at the kitchen table and Rosa (the size of a border collie) is sitting upright on my lap while my younger sister is sitting opposite us talking animatedly about her impending departure to uni. I happen to remember this because this pose would be classed a ‘nervous’ hug for Rosa. My sister’s animation worried her so she sat upright. Normally she’d be lying on her back like a baby, tongue lolling out one side of her face, a small glob of drool descending onto my t-shirt.

Rosa is not a typical dog. The difference between this photo and Bough’s is pretty clear, Rosa doesn’t look like she’s about to leap from my arms, her eye whites are hidden (even from this angle). She’s not leaning in any particular direction.

If we were being very critical we could say my arm is clearly restraining her and it is – it’s restraining her from falling off my lap as she’s a little too big. I’d hold a child in the same way.

So these are all the visual cues I’m using to assess this situation and come to the conclusion Rosa is happy in this situation. And Rosa frequently requests hugs (sometimes a little too eagerly – she’ll be half on my lap before I’ve sat down and has cracked my chin with her thick skull). If a pet requests something, it’s a safe bet that it likes it. Now occasionally owners will say the infamous line “Oh they like it!” of their clearly unimpressed pet, the pictures of cats with hats on the internet are proof enough of that. In this case I’m saying Rosa has a particular, unique set of behaviours which are unambiguous and precede her attempting to sit on my lap. It involves eye contact, gaze direction towards my lap, and pawing. Sometimes I will sit and invite her up with a similarly unambiguous signal where I’ll pat my knee repeatedly and call her name. If she chooses not to come up, there’s no penalty. So here when I’m saying Rosa ‘requests’ a hug, I’m saying she initiates the contact with signals that have developed over the course of our relationship.

But what is Rosa thinking here? This is a fascinating question for me. And coincidentally I came across a blogpost on PopSci about this video. In essence it appears that the baby is reacting to the emotional content of the song the mum is singing. I like the expert PopSci have consulted who says:

…the baby’s facial expressions are more consistent with a conflict between sociality and fear – perhaps a positive social response to her mother’s face, and fear in response to her mother’s low and loud singing voice, which is not like her speaking voice. Babies at this age often react negatively to unfamiliar things, including new people, and familiar people with something out of whack (e.g., wearing a hat)

Which I think is a great interpretation of what’s happening in that baby’s mind. It takes into account the baby’s behaviours, its expressions, and prior knowledge of how babies process things. I wonder, can I interpret Rosa’s thought processes?

I really enjoyed reading John Bradshaws ‘In Defence of Dogs’ and the companion book ‘Cat Sense’ which gives a brief natural history of our most common pets and talks about their behaviour. In it, Bradshaw points out the common fallacy of believing dogs are simply wolves – they’re not. They’re the wolves who chose to associate with humans, who’ve been with us for 20,000 years (Sablin & Khlopachev, 2002), and who are capable of understanding us and interacting with us in ways that even hand-reared wolves can’t comprehend (Gacsi et al 13, Viranyi et al 2008). And yet we don’t know if our dogs love us. In fact there is a paper out there which suggests that the closeness between dog and owner, as perceived by the owner, has no relationship with how attached the dog appears to be to the owner (Rehn et al, 2014). In essence, you may like your dog, but your dog might not like you.

But before you get too depressed about this – I have hope. And it doesn’t come from the fact we use the same social separation test to judge attachment in dogs as we do in babies (Rehn et al 2013) or that individual personalities in dogs and humans changes the attachment (Zilcha-Mano et al 2011) in the same way unique human friendships have different levels of attachment. It’s not even that, as the PopSci article shows, we’re just as good at misunderstanding our own babies as we are dogs (and babies aren’t hugely scarred by that).

So I’m going to give some interpretation a shot, just as an exercise. Rosa, like the baby, isn’t verbal. She doesn’t think in language (and while she might understand words like ‘walk’, ‘out’, ‘dinner’, ‘dad’, I doubt she’s capable of putting these things into sentences). What is Rosa thinking when she asks for a hug?

I don’t believe she’s thinking about ‘love’ or abstract concepts like that. I think her thought processes run more along the lines of “It’s she-who-is-sometimes-here-and-smells-like-and-talks-like-my-daddy-and-who-gives-me-food-lots [Jill, for short]. She lets me sit on her, which is comfortable and maybe she will scratch my ears or rub my belly”. And then I think she initiates the interaction she wants, she approaches me, she gets to sit on my lap, and usually I will arrange her so she can lie back and observe everybody else in the room because I know she likes to keep an eye on what they’re doing. Now I think her mind is going along the lines of “there is my pack, here it is comfortable, I can smell food, my ears are being nicely scratched, my daddy is happy”. I’m sure much of her contentedness relies on the fact she adores my dad and when I visit my dad we’re usually laughing and talking and enjoying ourselves.

In essence I think dogs, cat, other animals, babies and even drunk people live in the moment for the most part, with only a vague understanding of consequence at the very best. As the only sober ones at the party, the onus is on us to make sure they’re all okay, and not to take advantage of them by hugging them when they don’t want it.

Put like that, it seems simple enough to me!