Your dog looks adorable in its new sweater, but science suggests there might be more to your fascination with doggy dress-up than the cute factor.
It's winter, which means sweater season is in full swing for me and my pooch. If you're like me, you've got your favorite slouchy sweater on, and chances are your pup has a dog sweater (or seven) in its wardrobe, too. It turns out this says a lot more about us than it does about our pets' temperature tolerance.
Scientific studies into our obsession with pet accessories have revealed a few things about basic human nature. Not all of them are flattering.
The good news is that dressing your dog up has definite links to your ability to empathize, according to a study published in Psychological Review that examined why we do things like put sweaters on our pets and name our cars. When we slip a onesie onto our dog or cat, we are acknowledging that it has feelings and needs.
Projecting human emotions onto our pets comes naturally to most of us, and dressing them up makes it even easier for us to relate to our animals. This deepens our caring for our fur kids (let's not even get into why we call our pets "fur babies") and encourages us to do things like pet them and feed them.
Whether they have the feelings we like to think they do is irrelevant. Understanding that other living things have emotions, thoughts and needs is an important part of being a good person. Failure to empathize, on the other hand, leads to less savory things like genocide, racism and discrimination.
The bad news is that our tendency to anthropomorphize pets also has a lot to do with control. We make sense of our world by placing our own feelings and emotions on non-human things like pets, sometimes at the expense of our animals' actual needs and desires. My dog probably doesn't need a dog sweater, but I am cold so I expect her to feel chilly as well. I admit I actually feel warmer when she is wearing a dog sweater.
By making our pets look and act more like us, psychologists say, we feel we understand them better. This makes us feel more in control and enables us to relate to an environment that is often confusing and isolating. You can easily apply this to other things. It is easier to imagine a computer hating us, for instance, than accepting that incredibly slow internet is something totally outside of our control.
Let's get back to empathy for a moment. This study theorizes that part of the reason why genocide, discrimination and racism happen is that "connected" people are less likely to empathize with others. The authors claim that being a part of a group makes people unwilling to admit that other people have unique thoughts and feelings, something any bullied middle schooler could easily tell you. Lonely, unconnected people, on the other hand, are much more likely to empathize with others because they crave connection.
This is a good opportunity for those of us who lack large groups of exciting friends or who don't belong to cool clubs or recreational sports teams to take the moral high ground. Maybe we put sweaters on our dogs, and maybe we try to control the confusing world around us by anthropomorphizing our pets, but we are also less likely to approve of genocide and deny others their basic human rights.
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