Anthropomorphism explained

That guilty look that the pet gives you? It’s a reaction to you, not an expression felt by the dog. Just another example of human’s theory of mind run amuck.

Condition Owner told dog obeyed Owner told dog disobeyed
Dog was given treat Should be guilty;
human behavior conveys “not guilty”
Should be guilty;
human behavior conveys “guilty”
Dog does not eat treat Dog’s not guilty;
human behavior conveys “not guilty”
Dog’s not guilty;
human behavior conveys “guilty”

Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York (US) studied the cause of the “guilty look” in dogs and reported about it in “Disambiguating the ‘guilty look’: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour” in the academic journal Behavioral Processes. She set up situations in which a dog’s master or mistress was told that it had obeyed or not obeyed the owner’s command to not eat a treat, either accurately or inaccurately (see table for conditions). The owner (1) placed a treat near the dog and told the dog not to eat it; (2) left the room briefly; (3) could not see whether the experimenter did or did not fed the dog the treat; (4) returned to the room and was told to greet the dog (it hadn’t eaten the treat) or to scold the dog (it had eaten the treat).

The 14 dogs in the study did not show more guilty look behaviors (e.g., avoiding eye contact, lying down, moving away from the owner, etc.) when they ate the forbidden treat than when they didn’t eat it. They did show more such behaviors depending on whether their owners scolded them or greeted the. That is, their guilty behaviors were responses to the humans’ behavior, not to their own behavior.

Anthropomorphisms are regularly used by owners in describing their dogs. Of interest is whether attributions of understanding and emotions to dogs are sound, or are unwarranted applications of human psychological terms to non-humans. One attribution commonly made to dogs is that the “guilty look” shows that dogs feel guilt at doing a disallowed action. In the current study, this anthropomorphism is empirically tested. The behaviours of 14 domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were videotaped over a series of trials and analyzed for elements that correspond to an owner-identified “guilty look.” Trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey an owner’s command not to eat a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room, and varied the owners’ knowledge of what their dogs did in their absence. The results revealed no difference in behaviours associated with the guilty look. By contrast, more such behaviours were seen in trials when owners scolded their dogs. The effect of scolding was more pronounced when the dogs were obedient, not disobedient. These results indicate that a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues, rather than that it shows an appreciation of a misdeed.

Read others’ takes: Elsevier’s Science Blog. Sean Couglin of the BBC in “Can dogs really look ‘guilty?’.” Henry Fountain of the New York Times in “It’s an Owner’s Scolding That Makes a ‘Guilty’ Dog.” Rob Stein of the Washington Post in “Is the Hangdog Look for Real?.”


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