Readers of Bloomberg were recently treated to the news that when it comes to choosing a long-term partner, you may be better off choosing a dog over a spouse. The reason? According to scientists, we use a much better decision-making process when it comes to choosing our pets than we do to choosing our lovers.
As per the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, there are two systems that make up the decision-making process. System 1 is all about fast, impulsive, intuitive decisions: imagine you’re at the mall and suddenly, you spot a to-die-for little jacket down 50% on its usual price. Two minutes after touching the buttery soft leather of its sleeve, you find yourself at the counter, purse in one hand, jacket in the other. That, my friends, is an example of system 1 in all its glory. The second system is all about reasoned, logical, analytical thinking. Going back to our previous scenario, imagine you see that same jacket, but instead of rushing over to the sales counter with your cash in hand, you decide to wait it out, firstly to see if it’s just as appealing the following day, secondly to see if the price reduces any further, and thirdly to allow you to time to consider whether you really need an extra jacket at all… that, in its essence, is system 2.
You might be thinking that of the two, system 2 is clearly the better. After all, a rational, logical approach in which all things are rightly and properly considered has to be better than an off-the-cuff, rushed decision, right? As it turns out, no… not in all cases, in any case. While you may live to regret a decision using system 1, the amount of fore and afterthought involved in system 2 may make you even more miserable about your choice- if you ever even get around to making one, of course.
As Bloomberg notes, scientists are still trying to uncover why we use these different approaches, and how, and when, we’re more likely to use one approach over the other. One such scientist, a psychology graduate student at Indiana University called Samantha Cohen, has recently been taken all kinds of strides in figuring out an answer. After becoming curious as to why her fellow students would often claim to prefer a very different kind of partner than the one they’d ultimately end up with, Cohen decided to test whether people were similarly inclined to plump for something different to what they claimed to prefer when choosing a pet. Fortunately, Cohen was volunteering at a local animal shelter at the time, so she was primly positioned for her investigation.
Cohen began her study by pumping prospective dog owners about what they’d like their new pet to look like (be it small or tall, fat or thin, light-haired or dark) and what they’d like them to be like (playful or quiet, lazy or quick, affectionate or reserved). She then compared the qualities of the dog they said they’d prefer on their way in with the qualities of the dog they choose on their way out- as it turns out, there wasn’t much difference between the two.
After applying her findings to paper (in the aptly titled Behavior Research Methods) Cohen and her research partner, Peter Todd, took things one step further by comparing the number of marriages that end in divorce with the number of pet adoptions that end in the pet being returned to the shelter. The data was startling: while 43% of marriages end with one partner being shown the door, only 14% of pet adoptions end the same way.
The difference is especially noteworthy when you consider the very different thought processes that go into getting married (at least, for most people… Brittany Spear et all might need their own special category) compared to the ones that go into choosing a pet. If you’re most people, you’re likely to go on a number of dates with a prospective partner, get to know them, and even live with them before committing to spending the rest of your life with them. Consider that to the thought process that goes into choosing a pet, where the sight of a wagging tail and pair of twinkly eyes might be all it takes to win you over.
As Todd noted to Bloomberg, the result of the investigation bears remarkable similarities to a previous study in which volunteers in a blind test tended to rank strawberry jams in the same order as food experts when asked to simply point to their favorite, but veered wildly off course when they were asked to think up a criteria on which to base their judgments.
Going back to “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, does this mean the impulsive decision making of system 1 is always superior to the slow, considered thinking that goes into system 2? Perhaps… while more work on the subject may still be needed, the result of Cohen’s study has certainly given us food for thought. If we end up making wise choices when we don’t think too much about them, and miserable, bitter, and alone (at least if we’re talking marriage) if we give them too much consideration, then perhaps we should start throwing caution to the wind more often. That said, maybe we’re just naturally more inclined to stick with our pets than our partners, and the decision-making process that goes into either one has no real impact on things either way. At the moment, we can’t say for certain, but given it’s highly unlikely we’ll be giving up on either marriage or pets anytime soon, it’s equally likely we’ll be seeing more studies (and more conclusive conclusions) coming our way very soon. Stay tuned…