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Why do people prefer dogs over cats? They’re more controllable, study finds.

The ancient Egyptians worshiped cats as gods. Cats have never forgotten this.

Photo credit: Ancaro Project on Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Prior research and statistical evidence suggests that dogs are more popular than cats as pets. Why?
  • Research from the New York Institute of Technology says that it has to do with a concept called psychological ownership.
  • Psychological ownership has several sources, but the study found that people felt more psychological ownership over dogs than cats due to a sense that dogs are more controllable.

There’s no way to say this without making some people upset: When looking for a four-legged companion, most humans prefer dogs over cats. Studies have shown that self-identified dog people tend to be less neurotic, less likely to suppress their emotions, and tend to have overall higher scores of wellbeing than cat people. Young children significantly prefer dogs over cats. And in the U.S., 60.2 million households have a dog, while about 47.1 million have cats.

In a new paper titled, “Dogs have masters, cats have staff: Consumers’ psychological ownership and their economic valuation of pets,” Dr. Colleen Kirk of the New York Institute of Technology explains why this discrepancy exists. It has to do with the degree of psychological ownership we feel toward our pets.

Rather than legal ownership, psychological ownership refers to what we feel to be ours. You could, for instance, have a favorite booth that you like to sit in at a neighborhood restaurant. If somebody were to be sitting there when you walked in, you might feel annoyed; obviously, they have the right to sit there, but that’s your booth!

We feel the same way about pets. We treat pets like family, but we also treat them like living possessions. A sense of psychological ownership comes from two primary sources: self-investment, which differs from financial investment and deals more with the time and energy we devote to something; and control. When we can control something, we tend to feel that it belongs to us. Typically, this works with physical objects. Cars, for example, are only controlled by the owner. Nobody feels that they “own” a car they can’t even unlock. Importantly, psychological ownership is connected to an emotional attachment to the target as well.

Through a series of experiments, Dr. Kirk — her findings were published in the Journal of Business Research — discovered that people feel more psychological ownership over dogs than they do with their cats. What’s more, the resulting psychological ownership didn’t arise because of self-investment, but instead it came from a sense of control. People feel that dogs are more controllable than cats, and therefore, they feel more psychological ownership over them. As a result, people tend to prefer dogs.

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Measuring psychological ownership

Dr. Kirk uncovered this mechanism over the course of three studies. In the first, she administered a survey designed to measure how much psychological ownership people felt toward their pet based on how much control they felt they had and how much self-investment they had made into their pet. The surveys also asked what amount of money a person would be willing to spend on their pet for, say, a life-saving surgery or a personalized food bowl. The results showed that dog owners would pay more for their pet and that this tendency was linked to their sense of psychological ownership and control.

The second study worked much like the first, except this time, half of the respondents were told, “Now, for the rest of the survey, imagine that your pet had originally lived with someone else. Imagine that the pet’s behavior as you know it is entirely the result of any training that someone else did before you got the pet.”

The idea here is that this imaginative activity would reduce the respondents’ sense of psychological ownership. In this case, the findings from the first study were not replicated. The respondents who imagined that another owner had trained their pet felt less psychological ownership and were correspondingly less willing to pay for their pets.

The third study examined emotional attachment, an aspect of pet ownership that hadn’t yet been considered in this study. While psychological ownership is associated with attachment, the two are not mutually exclusive. You could feel very attached to a pet you do not see as your own, and you could not care at all about a pet that you do see as your own. That being said, a sense of control (and therefore a sense of psychological ownership) does encourage emotional attachment.

The results confirmed those of the previous two studies, suggesting that dog owners were more willing to spend money on their pet and additionally showed that their emotional attachment to their dog was due to the sense of control they felt. What’s more, when a dog’s behavior was described as being more typical to that of a cat, this effect diminished, and the opposite was true as well: when a cat was described as behaving more dog-like, pet owners believed they had more control over the pet and were willing to spend money on their pet.

Taken together, the results paint a pretty clear picture. Because psychological ownership can arise from feeling a sense of control, and because it produces an emotional attachment, people tend to prefer dogs over cats. Both animals make fantastic companions, but as author Mary Bly put it, “Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you.”

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