A recent online article by Richard Farrell on discovery.com reviews a study revealing that man’s best friend may not always be as happy as we think. In “Bowl Half Empty: Dogs Can Be Pessimists”, Mr. Farrell reviews a study that tested the “judgment bias” of dogs. As the study explains, this specific form of cognitive bias, “….refers to how animals interpret ambiguous signals and whether they expect more positive or negative outcomes. ” (Study at p.1.).

To conduct the study (in Australia), the researchers-Melissa J. Starling Nicholas Branson, Timothy R. Starling and Paul D. McGreevy – recruited 40 dogs of various breeds between the ages of 1-6 years. Some were privately owned as companion dogs but had been positively trained by a training and boarding company while others came from the Assistance Dogs Australia’s advanced training facility and still others from a private security company. In short, all of the dogs had been trained.

The researchers then taught the dogs to recognize two distinct tones, each an octave apart, and associate each tone with receipt of either lactose free milk or water. Eventually the dogs learned which tone would produce which treat; the lactose free milk or the water.

Once the dogs learned these tones, the researchers then began playing an “ambiguous” tone or one that was somewhere within the octave or between the two learned tones.

If a dog responded to the ambiguous tone with the kind of enthusiasm it had when it heard the milk-treat tone, the pup was termed “optimistic.” These were bowl-half-full dogs, the kind expecting good things to happen. Such dogs are risk-takers, bright-eyed calculators of risk-vs.-reward.

Dogs that did not respond to the ambiguous tone were considered more pessimistic. These bowl-half-empty’ers had Eeyore-ish personalities. Such cautious canines expect more bad things to happen than good, and they’ll tend to be on the cautious side, easily discouraged when things don’t go well.

Pessimistic dogs aren’t “unhappy,” according to the study; they’re just happiest with things the way they are, and they might need a bit of a nudge to try new things. (News article at 2.)

The researchers found that on the whole, more of the dogs were optimistic than pessimistic. (Id.)

What is the relevance of this study? As in persons, it indicates what kind of job best fits the personality. The pessimistic dog may be best as a guide dog because it will avoid risks while an optimistic dog may be best used for detection of explosives et cetera because it is willing to take risks and to venture into the unknown! (Id.)

So, while this study superficially may have nothing to do with negotiation, in reality it does. What is your judgment bias: how do you interpret ambiguous situations? Do you shy away expecting a negative outcome? Or, jump in head first, quite curious expecting a positive outcome?

Closely related is the concept of “risk aversion” in which, “…losses loom larger than gains

[which]implies that people impute greater value to a given item when they give it up than when they acquire it” according to Kahneman and Tversky (1979). In short, people are more willing to take a risk to gain something than to lose it. ( “When Do Losses Loom Larger Than Gains ” by Dan Ariely, Joel Huber, and Klaus Wertenbroch.) (http://web.mit.edu/ariely/www/MIT/Papers/LA_comment.pdf)

So, it seems that dogs, like people, may just be “risk” averse. Both may take a chance for the “sure” treat and both may well shy away from the not so sure treat!

…. Just something to think about.



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