Major Project · Semester Two

The Psychology of Pet Ownership

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Figure 1.1 Shown above – Me, with my dog Bailey, lying relaxing after returning home from university.

The purpose of the animated documentary can be described as a responsive social art study that analyses the bond of man and animal as it has evolved, depicting the modern -day relationship between a pet and its owner.

The internet and news networks have recently witnessed an influx of human interest stories, resulting in the establishment of social media channels and websites that have been created to offer an outlet for people to share their experiences.  Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The photographer, Brandon Stanton, had an initial goal of capturing 10,000 images to categorise the day-to-day experiences of the city’s inhabitants. In a matter of seven years, the personal project has expanded to an ongoing social installation piece that explores different corners of the globe and has captured the intrigue of eighteen million people worldwide.

Figure 1.2 Shown above – Stills exhibited by HONY – Humans of New York. Links to their personal stories can be located in references. 

The photojournalistic approach to the human interest stories is unrestrictive, exploring a vast range of topics that has played a role of significance in that person’s life. The speculation is that outlets such as HONY, or Love What Matters, are favoured with the general population is due to the fact that they tell ‘real’ stories. The stories have an element of universal significance, and that resounds with the audience because they are able to connect in an empathetic and intellectual level. The message is simple – human life is a cause for celebration and that every moment matters, even those difficult ones.

Shown in example 1.2 are stories from HONY that are conducted with pet owners, describing their relationships with their animals.  It is within this area of the human experience that we want to investigate.

To gain an informed understanding of the psychological rationale that influences the decision to adopt an animal into the family home, it felt an appropriate choice to research for scientific experiments that explore the psychological and physical impact that occurs from the presence of an animal companion within the daily experience of the owner.

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Figure 1.3 Shown Above – My dog hates to have his picture taken and refuses to look at the camera.

During my enquiry process, I uncovered a piece from the Telegraph that contained an article that discussed the similarities in chemical reactions to animal companions. The article, which can be accessed here, describes the role of oxytocin – a hormone associated with strong emotional connotations – in the relationship between pet and owner. The comparison has been suggested that the realise of oxytocin upon the owner seeing their animal companion, and vice versa, can be equally significant as the gaze between a mother and her newborn child.

The article proceeds to address the exploration of the hypothesis, conducting an observation known as the Nagasawa experiment. In order to assess whether the release of oxytocin was a mutual reaction between dog and owners, the researchers placed them in a room and documented their interactions, including physical and communicative gestures.

Once the interactions were completed, urine samples processed, and the observational data was reviewed, the consensus indicated that both human and animal demonstrated increased levels of oxytocin when exposed to one another in close proximity. The researchers commented that increased eye contact had also been demonstrated during the assessment process.

The enquiry as to why humans appeared to respond to animal companions in a similar way to their own offspring, or sexual partners, encouraged the researchers to share their speculations and theories. An interesting tidbit is that the Nagasawa experiment had been conducted using wolves rather than animal companions also, and the results of their data methodology indicated that the response was not resounding in all animals. This revelation strengthened the argument that domesticated dogs, through the process of evolution, have managed to develop their instincts to mimic the social pathway between humans and their offspring, encompassing those elements within their behaviour in order to evoke that response. Dr. Evan Maclean (2015) describes the process of adapting to domestication, ‘taken on more childlike and juvenile characteristics to further embed themselves into our lives.

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Figure 1.4 Shown above – my beloved miniature Yorkshire Terrier, Whiskey, who had to be put to sleep due to medical problems in the Spring of 2012.

The topic of domestication through the evolutionary age corresponds with the evidence that I uncovered in an online article (accessed here) that discussed why it is that human beings cannot help but get attached to animals to the point that we consider them a member of the family.

The article consults Hal Herzog (2015), a professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University, who has experience with analysis of human and animal interactions. They reiterate the scientific assessment involving biological reactions and release of oxytocin that remains the most significant explanation for the unconditional love between mankind and dog.

An interesting statistic related to the perception of animals being considered as family members is predominantly demonstrated in the western hemisphere. Whilst animals are still significant in the east, they do not consider animals to be the social equal to the presence of another human. This is a behavioural pattern that is most strongly presented within the population of the United States, who idealise cat and dog breeds specifically – this indicates that the relationship between human and animal is impacted by the cultural influences, rather than as a universal trait.

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Figure 1.5 Shown above – I finally got him to sit still so that I could take a picture.

American Demographics have changed, and more people are living alone. People are getting married later, if they get married at all. They’re having fewer kids… People are more attached to their pets because they’re filling a whole.”  – Herzog, 2015.

Animals are known to provide companionship and unconditional love. The average human life expectancy can achieve seventy plus years, whilst the animals that are welcomed into our homes may only live for five to ten years of that span. Whilst they are only an element of family life, the human is their entire existence. That thought is a potent reminder of the significance of love and devotion within the relationship between mankind and their pets.

The importance of companionship is expressed strongly by Martin Siegel as the rationale that influences the decision to treat an animal as another member of the family. In this article, he explains that mankind treasures their company, and that encourages the owners to do what they can in order to ensure the animal companion’s happiness and well-being are maintained.

Siegel explains that mankind is the only race that has demonstrated the ability to bond with another species, which is a unique trait that has occurred as the result of evolution. Whilst symbiotic relationships can occur naturally in the wild between different animals, the co-existence has yet to be documented by any other species other than humans. Humanity has facilitated that opportunity for other animals that may have had predatory instincts for one another – such as dogs and cats – to live together harmoniously within a household.

A hypothesis suggested by Edward O. Wilson suggested that during the evolutionary periods, co-existence between animals occurred as an observation that it provided an improved survival advantage. Research indicates that humans who kept their distance from animals had reduced opportunities for survival than those who opted to live harmoniously with species such as wolves. Wilson provides a further suggestion that the rationale as to why animals are used for therapeutic rehabilitation is closely linked to the bond that was formed during that evolutionary period.

Humans have control over their animal companions. As previously stated, the love for the animal encourages the owner to do whatever may be within their power to ensure that the emotional and physical well-being of the animal is cared for. The concept of having an animal that is entirely dependant on them – similarly to infants and young children – can evoke a sense of power, providing that person with the satisfaction of validation that they have a purpose.

According to Wilson, the ability for a human to demonstrate love is conditional in most circumstances. Animals, once a bond has been established between the pet and owner, do facilitate unconditional love. Animals remain unaware of faults and personal flaws that may taint the rose-tinted glasses.

The emotional connection may provide an answer as to why humanity has a general presumption that they are more empathetic to animals than their fellow man. Bethany Brookshire (2016) enquiries  (located here) as to why people insist on applying emotional and moral sense to animal actions. It is her claim that humanity’s capacity for empathy is the culprit – it is a key element of expression to a social species.

Kurt Grey, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, explains that whilst mankind is aware that they have a mind, thoughts and feelings, people cannot be entirely sure whether or not that is applicable to animals. The ambiguity of that predicament causes projection, which is when a human will reflect their emotions onto another living creature, as, ‘you can’t know for sure, so your best guess is what you would do in that situation’ (Grey, 2010).

Grey describes this phenomenon as the ‘dyadic completion,’ which can be explained as the encompassing of human morality upon animals – especially in situations of apparent suffering. One animal is considered the victim, whereas the other is given the role of the persecutor – this is a contradictory belief to natural selection and the food chain. It rebukes nature.

‘Every victim needs a perpetrator. A sufferer with no one responsible is psychologically incomplete, and viewers will fill in a perpetrator in response‘ (Grey, 2010). Through the process of projection, humans are reflecting on their own personal experiences in the role of perpetrator and as the victim. It could be suggested that due to humanity having the ability to communicate as a social species, empathy can be less significant as that person is seen as abled, with the ability to vocalise their emotional distress.

Animals, by comparison, are perceived as vulnerable as a result of their inability to express themselves. It may be suggested that the empathy can be a result of the non-conscious belief that humanity is superior and that animals – similar to the disabled, children and those with chronic illnesses – are a social standing that is below them. Empathy can be considered a pure emotion as it occurs from the deepest thought of morality and love, but it is not a natural ability to facilitate empathy. The person is enriched by the depth of their compassion, but can also result in that person to become emotionally overwhelmed and distressed (Cummins, 2014).

Regarding that statement, it may be suggested that the projection of animals with human morality could be a form of a repressed coping mechanism. The human mind contains functions that protect the mental wellbeing of the person, thus resulting in people emotionally disassociating from situations of difficulty. They may be unable to control the situation in their personal life, but as they feel that they maintain a form of power over that animal, strong emotional responses can occur which would make a person appear to display an empathetic preference towards animals rather than their fellow man.

The depth of the research has been vitally informative towards my growing comprehension regarding the role of an animal companion within the life of a human. As the animated documentary is a responsive art piece, it is important for the team to remind themselves that it is the perspective of the owner that is prevalent, rather than the experience of the animal. The sources that I have reviewed have indicated to me that there is a universal rationale that influences the decision as to why a person may adopt a pet, and the emotional and psychological benefits that they receive as a result of that decision.

It shall be interesting to see where the information explored within this post will evolve within the next few days as the team reviews the options, and confirms what direction that we wish for the animated documentary to proceed forward. Regardless of the choice that is made, it is my belief that this research highlights key elements that make the documentary a social art study and strengthen the ability to achieve our desired outcome – a universal experience, told by one story.


Reference:

Anderson, E. (2015). This is why you care more about some animals than you care about humans | BDCWire. [online] BDCWire. Available at: http://www.bdcwire.com/this-is-why-you-care-more-about-some-animals-than-you-do-about-humans/ [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017].

Brookshire, B. (2016). Empathy for animals is all about us. [online] Science News. Available at: https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/scicurious/empathy-animals-all-about-us [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017].

Cummins, D. (2014). Why Some People Seem to Lack Empathy. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/good-thinking/201406/why-some-people-seem-lack-empathy [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017].

Love What Matters. (n.d.). Home. [online] Available at: http://lovewhatmatters.com/ [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017].

Humans of New York. (n.d.). Humans of New York. [online] Available at: http://www.humansofnewyork.com/ [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017]. Link [1] [2] [3]

 

Knapton, S. (2015). Humans love pet dogs as much as their children and the feeling is mutual. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11542075/Why-humans-love-pet-dogs-as-much-as-their-children.html [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017].

Siegel, M. (2015). The Psychology of Human Bonding | Why Do We Love Our Pets So Much?. [online] Kosmos Journal. Available at: https://www.kosmosjournal.org/news/the-psychology-of-human-bonding-why-do-we-love-our-pets-so-much/ [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017].

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