On most weekends, you can find Indiana University graduate student Sam Cohen at Bloomington Animal Care and Control, a local animal shelter where she has volunteered for two years as a pet adoption counselor. She gets to know the dogs, talks with visitors, and helps them identify which dogs they might want to adopt. But, according to Sam, people have minds of their own when it comes to choosing their pets, and their logic is not always easy to follow.
Luckily, however, Sam is no stranger to the curious logic of people’s decision-making processes. She is a senior graduate student in Professor Peter Todd’s Adaptive Behavior and Cognition Lab in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, where she and her colleagues study all kinds of decision-making strategies: How do people decide which foods to eat? How do people select collaborative (or romantic) partners? By comparing the strategies that people use across different contexts, the lab can test hypotheses about how decision-making strategies have evolved.
One particularly interesting example is the choice of decision-making strategies used to select canine companions. As dogs and humans have co-evolved, we may have developed choice mechanisms specifically for interacting with dogs. Alternatively, it could be the case that people use decision-making strategies that originally evolved to guide human mate choice to now also make choices among dogs. In evolutionary terms, this could be evidence of exaptation: when a trait evolves for one reason, but later serves a different function.
Sam’s interest in studying this topic began at the animal shelter, when she started to notice patterns in the decisions adopters were making.
In a nutshell, it seems that what people say they want often doesn’t line up with what they choose in the end. Visitors say they want one thing, but ultimately choose something completely different. Sam has seen the same pattern of behavior before – in her lab’s research on speed dating. “I didn’t make the connection until one of the other adoption counselors was mentioning a case to a staff member. Someone had found a dog they really liked, but it wasn’t what they had said they wanted. I absent-mindedly mentioned that humans show that pattern in tons of decisions – and it hit me that this was the same phenomenon, in an unstudied domain.”
Are the decision-making strategies that people use to select romantic partners similar to the strategies they use to select canine companions? Could this be an example of a strategy that developed early in evolution (for selecting human partners) and is now being applied to other domains?
Last summer, Sam received a Graduate and Professional Student Government research award to begin investigating this topic. She started with a small pilot study, and went to the shelter to survey visitors about what they were looking for in their future pets. Participants indicated whether they had a preference for certain characteristics with respect to age, size, sex and coat color. They were also asked about canine “personality” traits, such as friendliness, nervousness, and intelligence. Sam documented all of this information, allowed the visitors to go through the adoption process, and recorded the choices they ultimately made. She then followed-up with participants about their decisions so that she could directly compare what participants said they wanted at the beginning of the process to what they chose by the end.
This experimental design is an important feature of the study. While there have been other studies on pet adoption, most have only recruited participants who had already adopted a pet, meaning that they considered only individuals who successfully found a pet at a shelter. Furthermore, existing data sets do not tell us about the options adopters had at the time of adoption. Sam is taking a more comprehensive approach to create a data set that will include three critical components: adopters’ stated preferences prior to the adoption, the options available to adopters during decision-making, and what they ultimately chose. This will allow her to follow participants through the entire decision-making process, as is typical in most cognitive science lab experiments.
Now that she has perfected her survey and trained a “small army” of research assistants, Sam’s study is running like a well-oiled machine. Almost any time the shelter is open, one of her research assistants is there, seeking out participants and collecting data. With enough participants, she hopes to create a model of the decision-making process to determine which factors influence which dogs are chosen, and which have no bearing on the decision.
So when is there a difference between what people say they want and what they actually decide? Do people use the same decision-making strategy when selecting a romantic partner and when selecting a canine companion? For now, the jury is still out, but Sam and her colleagues hope to wrap up data collection and begin looking at their results in the upcoming months.
In addition to answering evolutionary questions about human decision making, this research could be used to reform and increase the success rate of the adoption process, and make a meaningful connection between research at IU and the Bloomington community. According to Sam, “millions of animals are euthanized each year in the United States, largely due to over-crowding, so anything we can do to minimize the time spent in shelters and prevent animals from being returned could make a large impact.”
I would additionally like to acknowledge Sam Cohen for and Dr. Peter Todd, and thank them for their assistance in editing this article.