There is a common cognitive bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error, that is central to the way in which we view others and make judgements about their behavior. It is supported by a large body of research and is one of the most common errors that our brains make on a regular basis. The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to explain the behavior of other people in terms of their internal disposition, such as personality traits, innate abilities, and motives, rather than to the external (situational) factors that may actually be exerting a much stronger influence on them. This lapse in judgement occurs (especially in Western cultures) because we tend to assign high value to what we assume to be an individual’s character and personality traits, while at the same time we underestimate the influence that situational factors and context can have.
We all are susceptible to committing this error and it is usually only through conscious control that we can keep it in check. A common example occurs when we are driving and someone cuts us off in traffic. We immediately label the offending driver as “a jerk” (or worse) rather than consider that he might be driving to the hospital (or with his dog to the veterinarian) on an emergency and would not normally behave so rudely towards other drivers. This is not to say that unpleasant people do not exist, but rather, that humans have a natural tendency to jump to depositional (personality) explanations for another’s behavior and are less inclined to consider situational explanations.
The Fundamental Attribution Error came to mind recently when I was reading a paper that examined dog owners’ reports about their dogs’ behavior, specifically about excitable behavior. The study was conducted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Center for Shelter Dogs and was published in the journal, Animals (1).
The Study: The authors note in the introduction that the term “excitable behavior” in dogs is both poorly defined and under-studied. They then provide a diverse list of undesirable behaviors that have been reported to fall under the umbrella of excitable dog behavior. These include jumping up, mounting, destructiveness, mouthing, grabbing clothing, digging, some forms of barking, rough play, pulling on lead, and (my particular favorite) “dogs who respond poorly to commands and are difficult to control”. Study objective: The purpose of the study was to use an on-line survey to collect information regarding owners’ experiences with their dog’s excitable behavior and to report the behaviors that are prevalent in excitable dogs. Methods: The study group was self-selecting. Participants checked a box in the survey that asked if their dog was “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those owners who answered “yes” were included in the study; owners who answered “no” were excluded. The remainder of the questionnaire included questions about the dog’s demographics and problematic behaviors, and the degree of frustration that the owner had with those behaviors. Results: The study group included 175 owners, the majority of whom said that they were very frustrated with their dog’s behavior and found it difficult to manage. Most of the dogs were spayed/neutered and were young adults (average age; ~ 3 years). Almost half of the dogs (44 %) were identified as either purebred Labrador Retrievers or Lab mixes. The two most frequently reported problematic behaviors were jumping up and mouthing (without discomfort to the person). Other commonly reported undesirable behaviors included general disobedience, unwanted barking, pulling on the leash, destructive behavior and “not listening to commands”. The scenarios in which excitable behaviors were most likely to occur included when the owner arrived home after an absence and when the owner was playing with the dog. Some owners also reported excessive excitement when the dog was meeting new people. Conclusions: The authors concluded that “The majority of owners in this self-selected sample were very frustrated with their excitable dog”, that “Many of the dogs in the sample had other behavior problems”, and that their results could be used to “…..provide better education to owners of excitable dogs” (Emphasis mine).
Hmmm……..Yes, in case you were wondering, I do have an opinion about this.
There are several problems with this study, in terms of both its methodology and the conclusions that were made. Let’s start with that pesky thing called the Scientific Method, which requires the use of both a representative sample and sufficient controls to prevent bias and capricious conclusions.
Sampling bias: In the authors’ words “The focus of this study is on owners’ experience with their excitable dogs.” Therefore, it must have seemed logical to them (i.e. it felt like a good idea at the time) to simply ask owners to tell them if their dog was one of those (poorly defined) excitable dogs. By this logic, an excitable dog is a dog who is excitable (according to their owner). Circular reasoning does not a representative sample make. And here’s a big surprise; the owners who identified their dog as “highly or extremely excitable” were also very frustrated with their dog’s behavior. Wow. Who knew?
Absence of controls: At the start of the survey, owners were asked if they would describe their dog as “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those who answered in the affirmative were included in the study. Owners who answered “no” were not allowed to complete the survey (i.e. a possible control group of dogs was purposefully excluded). The authors went on to report that excitable dogs are likely to show problematic behaviors of jumping up and mouthing, along with a myriad of other associated problem behaviors. However, without a control group to compared the frequencies of these behaviors to, what do we actually learn from these data?
Here’s why: Let’s say that a control group was used (i.e. correct scientific methods were followed). So, hypothetically, let say that the control group included a similar number of age-, sex- and breed-matched dogs who were representative of the general population of dogs. Their owners completed the same survey and answered the same questions. The reported frequencies of problematic behaviors in the experimental group (dogs identified as excitable) were then compared with the frequencies of the same behaviors in the control group. Here are some possible outcomes of this hypothetical study:
- Jumping up: In the actual study, 60 percent of owners of excitable dogs said that their dog jumped up to greet when they returned home after an absence. If (hypothetically) a similar proportion of owners in the control group, let’s say 62 % for reason of argument, stated that their dog jumped on them when they returned home, then the proportion of jumping up in excitable dogs did not differ from the proportion of that problem in the general population of dogs. And, if jumping up was not over-represented in the excitable dog group, then jumping up is NOT a problem associated with excitable dogs. (Rather, it is just something that dogs do).
- Pulling on leash, destructive behaviors, not listening to commands: You see where this is going. The plethora of unwanted dog behaviors that the study participants vented about in their surveys cannot viewed as indicative of an excitable dog because the frequencies of these behaviors were never compared to their frequencies in other dogs. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the owners placed their dogs into the self-described category of excitable dog in the first place. Lots of dogs pull on lead, bark and do not listen. All that we learned here is that owners like to complain about these behaviors and welcome the opportunity to label their dog as “excitable”.
Wait, there’s more.
The Fundamental Attribution Error: The authors state: “In general, disobedient, destructive, chasing and barking behavior problems were the most commonly reported behaviors by owners of excitable dogs“. Excluding the occasional dog who cheats on his income taxes or robs the town bank, I think that this list of unwanted behaviors pretty much covers everything that owners complain about in young, untrained dogs. (What are the “non-excitable dogs’ doing to annoy their owners, one might ask)? While this sounds facetious, I actually am serious. If the purpose of this study was to allow a group of self-identifying owners of excitable dogs to air their (numerous) complaints about their dogs and to give their perceptions a voice, then by definition, the authors are assuming that excitable dogs differ in some fundamental way from other dogs. I would argue that they have no evidence of such a thing and moreover that classifying certain dogs as excitable is ill-founded and not in the best interest of any dogs, regardless of the researchers’ noble intentions.
Encouraging dog owners (and dog professionals) to commit a fundamental attribution error by labeling dogs as inherently “excitable” provides tacit permission to blame the dog’s personality or intrinsic nature for undesirable behaviors, rather than looking carefully at situational factors that may be influencing the dog. The outcome of such perceptual differences could be devastating:
FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION EXPLANATIONS (THE EXCITABLE DOG):
- My dog must have been born this way. (Solution: none)
- He was abused/abandoned/neglected by his previous owner and it made him hyperactive. (Solution: none)
- He’s a Lab, Lab-mix, Pittie (*Insert any breed stereotype here) (Solution: none)
- She’s a hyper-active dog. (Solution: none)
- He’s an excitable dog. (Solution: none)
- She’s a bad dog. (Solution: Get rid of the dog).
This mindset leads an owner to the conclusion that their dog’s behavior is immutable and that their own degree of responsibility is minimal or nonexistent. Alternatively, where do situational explanations lead us?
SITUATIONAL EXPLANATIONS (UNWANTED EXCITED BEHAVIORS):
- He is rarely exposed to new people, places, and dogs. (Solution: I need to socialize him and take him with me more often).
- She does not receive regular exercise. (Solution: I need to incorporate several types of daily exercise into our routines).
- He has not had consistent training (Solution: I will enroll him in a training class).
- She is crated and left alone for many hours of the day. (Solution: I will hire a dog-walker or use a reputable doggy day care).
- I may have unrealistic expectations for my young dog’s behavior. (Solution: I will ratchet down my expectations so that they are more in line with what is reasonable to expect of a young, happy and exuberant dog. I will love my dog).
Let’s avoid making the fundamental attribution error with our dogs. Because we have complete control over what happens to them, the outcome can be much worse than simply calling someone a jerk.
Nuff said. Off box.
Cited Study: Shabelansky A, Dowling-Guyer S. Characteristics of excitable dog behavior based on owners’ report from a self-selected study. Animals 2016; 6, 22; doi10.3390/ani6030022.