If there’s one thing that that pet owners regularly assume, it’s the simple idea that their furry, scaly, and feathery friends make them significantly happier.
Without a doubt, people really love their pets. According to several polls from the Associated Press, 35% of pet owners have included their furry friends in a family portrait, 30% allow their pets to sleep in bed with them, and a whopping 25% of married or cohabitating pet owners believe that their pet is a better listener than their significant other. And that’s not all; there’s even some evidence to suggest that your pet can make you healthier. Heart attack victims who own pets are less likely to die within a year of the attack, and elder patients with pets require fewer physician visits than their non-owner counterparts.1
With animal companions like these, who needs other people? From polls and stories, it seems pretty clear: We’re close with our pets (sometimes disturbingly so), and their involvement in our lives makes us happier and healthier. But where anecdotes and polling data have thrived, science has somewhat struggled. Bearing in mind the simple fact that causality claims require controlled experiments, the concept of randomly assigning some participants to pet ownership while assigning others to a ban on furry friendship poses an ethical dilemma. With a literature built entirely out of correlational studies, how do we know if pets really make people healthier and happier, or if healthy, happy people are just more likely to own pets?
What Makes Us Feel Close To Our Pets In The First Place?
According to research on anthropomorphism, consistently lonely or isolated people are more likely to attribute humanlike characteristics to their pets. In one study, participants who watched a clip from the movie Cast Away (in which a man experiences severe isolation on a deserted island) were subsequently more likely to describe their pets as thoughtful, considerate, or sympathetic – ‘human’ characteristics specifically related to social connection. Participants who watched a scary or neutral movie clip were not nearly as likely to describe their pets in such human-like ways.
This line of research suggests that feeling lonely, rejected, or otherwise socially isolated leads people to view their pets as increasingly human. The more isolated we feel from others, the more likely we are to see our pets as adequate people-substitutes, filled with emotions, thoughts, personality traits, and the capacity to understand us.
Based on this logic, one would think that there’s a very clear tie between interpersonal relationships and the owner-pet connection. If lonely people anthropomorphize their pets, presumably as a means of coping with social isolation, then can’t we assume that the very people who derive high levels of social support from their pets are only doing so because of equally low levels of social support from the people around them?
Well, not so fast. There’s more to the story.
Pets and Friends: Are They Really So Different?
We all know the stereotype of the Crazy Cat Lady2; if asked, most people could easily generate a clear mental image of a lonely woman sitting at home with a myriad of whining cats, giving them human names, calling herself their mother, and acting as if they’re her best (and/or only) friends.
Along with this cultural stereotype comes a common societal assumption that people who look to their pets for social support (or simply own a particularly large number of pets) do so to cope with the sad fact that their human relationships are somewhat…lacking.
However, in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Allen McConnell and colleagues concluded something quite different. They found that pet owners were actually less likely to feel like they needed to protect themselves from social rejection, and also less likely to feel like they had to obsessively strive for social acceptance.
The authors also asked these pet owners to indicate the extent to which they considered their families, friends, and pets to be part of their “personal selves” by showing them seven series of overlapping circles (pictured above) and asking them to indicate which one best reflected their relationship with their parents, siblings, closest friend, and closest pet.
On average, pet owners considered their closest pets to be just as important to their self-concepts as their siblings (though both groups came second to best friends and parents). Additionally, when asked to rate how much social support they receive from these four sources, pet owners rated their pets just as high on perceived social support as their siblings and parents (though not quite as high as their best friends).
Two Competing Hypotheses
There are two hypotheses that offer competing suggestions for how the relation between pet- and people-based social support could be described.
According to the hydraulic hypothesis, owners should get a particular benefit from pet-derived social support if they lack satisfying human relationships; if this hypothesis were correct, pet owners with higher levels of interpersonal social support would get less of a “social boost” from their pets, whereas pet owners with interpersonal deficits would rely on their pets more. The “crazy cat lady” stereotype (referenced above) is a perfect example of the hydraulic effect in action, and this hypothesis naturally follows the stream of logic advanced by the anthropomorphism studies (isolation → anthropomorphized pets → boost in self-esteem, drop in loneliness).
On the other hand, the complement hypothesis maintains that pet owners’ relationships with other people have nothing to do with the benefits and social support that they receive from their pets; rather, perceiving strong social support from your pet should always give you a boost, regardless of how strong your relationships are with other humans.
To test these hypotheses, the researchers gathered a sample of dog owners and measured the extent to which other people and their dogs fulfilled various social needs (like belongingness or self-esteem).
Somewhat surprisingly, there was no support for the hydraulic hypothesis. As closeness with (and perceived social support from) pets increased, so did perceived closeness and support related to other people.
In fact, human and dog scores on the social need fulfillment inventory were significantly and positively related; the more people felt that their social needs were fulfilled by their dogs, the more they also felt that their social needs were fulfilled by other people. Even after controlling for how much other people successfully fulfilled the dog owner’s social needs, the dog’s independent fulfillment of those needs was still positively related to self-esteem and happiness, and negatively related to depression, loneliness, and overall stress levels.
Essentially, the idea that the only people who benefit from pet-based social support are those who don’t have good social relationships with other people was pretty firmly debunked. On the contrary, the more that people felt that their pets filled an important social role in their lives, the more likely they were to also have strong social relationships with other people.
So Are Pet Owners Generally Happier?
Interestingly, pet ownership is in fact related to several measures of personal well-being – but not happiness. On average, pet owners were no happier than non-owners, and they were also just as depressed, though pet owners did report lower levels of loneliness and higher self-esteem.
These results don’t support the lay assumption that pets increase happiness, or even the assumption that pet ownership improves well-being; if pets really had anything to do with overall “well-being,” then pet owners should be significantly happier (and less depressed) than non-owners, assuming an absence of ceiling (or floor) effects on scores.3
In reality, pet ownership positively relates to certain aspects of well-being, but only in ways that pertain to social connectedness.4 This fits in well with the ideas behind the complement hypothesis. Pet owners do not necessarily have to have lousy interpersonal relationships in order to experience boosts in self-esteem and decreases in loneliness from their pets; all they need is the pet.
How Can We Establish Causality?
Even with all of this evidence, there’s still that giant (pet) elephant in the room: causality. Without random assignment, there’s still no way to know if pet owners are different from non-owners because of their pets’ influence, or if their differences were what led them to get pets in the first place.
In an attempt to draw as much of a causal claim as possible, McConnell and colleagues took this research one step further. They brought in a sample of pet owners, and once again asked them how well they felt like their social needs were fulfilled. However, before they asked them about this, they manipulated two key things.
- Half of the participants were made to feel socially rejected. Using a standard experimental prime, half of the participants were asked to write about a time when they felt excluded or rejected in great emotional detail. This is a standard practice in social psychology experiments, and it’s an effective way of approximating the real-life experience of feeling isolated. The other half simply wrote about their experiences waking up on the prior day.
- After the first manipulation, all of the participants were randomly assigned to write about their favorite pet, write about their favorite friend, or draw a map of their college campus. The premise of this manipulation was that the writing activity should activate thoughts and memories of the pet (or the friend); seeing if people who are thinking about their pets differ in any meaningful way from people who aren’t is the best way possible to see if the pets themselves actually make a difference in well-being.
What ended up happening was that social need fulfillment was only lowered for the socially rejected participants in the map-drawing condition. Participants who wrote about their pets or about their friends didn’t suffer at all; in fact, the two groups showed roughly equal effects. While this can’t establish certain causality for the everyday effects of owning a pet, it does convincingly suggest that pets provide us with a similar level of social support as our close friends.
When it comes to protecting yourself from the negative effects of social rejection, you don’t need to pick up the phone; reaching out to your pet can be just as effective as reaching out to your closest friend. Now, if only Fido could give you a ride to the airport…
McConnell, A.R., Brown, C.M., Shoda, T.M., Stayton, L.E., & Martin, C.E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology PMID: 21728449
Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. (2008). Creating Social Connection Through Inferential Reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19 (2), 114-120 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02056.x
Images: Wizard of Oz photo via Wikimedia Commons, Simpsons’ Crazy Cat Lady photo via Wikipedia, Cuddling cats photo and black lab photo taken by author
1. Data culled from the introduction of McConnell et al., 2011.
2. As the owner of two cats, I admit to being plagued by a tiny bit of fear of fulfilling this stereotype.
3. There did not seem to be a ceiling or a floor effect for subjective happiness or depression. The depressive symptomatology means in both owners and nonowners were around 30 on a 80-point scale, and the means for happiness were between 5 and 5.5 on a 7-point scale in both groups, leaving plenty of room for scores to have potentially fallen above or below the sample means.
4. Although at first glance self-esteem, which is conceptually supposed to measure the participant’s self-view, may not seem to involve social connectedness, several of the items do involve social comparisons; for example, two items on this scale are “I am able to do things as well as most other people” and “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others.”
Other coverage of this study:
Friends With Benefits: Pets Make Us Happier, Healthier [blog post from the first author of the study]
Related posts from the Thoughtful Animal archives:
Melanie Tannenbaum received a B.A. in Psychology with departmental and Latin honors from Duke University in 2009. She is currently a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studies power, persuasion, and politics.
Melanie blogs at PsySociety where she uses psychological research to examine pop culture and current events, including everything from X-Men and American Idol to Casey Anthony’s acquittal and Weinergate. You can add her on twitter or Google+, and she also has a personal webpage.