The Research Brief is a brief look at interesting academic work.
The big idea
Dog owners tend to take greater risks and respond more to reward-oriented advertising. Cat owners, on the other hand, are more cautious and more likely to respond to ads that emphasize risk aversion. Those are the two key findings of new peer-reviewed research that I co-authored.
My dog Midoo is always eager to join me in various activities and never hesitates to show her excitement when people show up at the door. In contrast, my cat Mipom is more alert and suspicious when she is around strangers, and stays a comfortable distance from people. I wondered if their general disposition has any influence on my own behavior or the decisions I make?
These are the questions I hoped to answer in a series of 11 studies I conducted with fellow marketing professors Xiaojing Yang and Yuwei Jiang.
In our first few studies, we looked at pet ownership data in US states and compared it to several rough measures of risk-taking. For example, we found that people in states with a higher proportion of dog owners, such as North Dakota, had a higher prevalence of COVID-19 infections in 2020 than states with more cat owners, such as Vermont. Although we controlled for political orientation and other variables, our results only show a correlation. For example, the reason dog ownership appears to be associated with more cases of COVID-19 may be that dog owners are taking more risk — or they simply need to walk their pets more often, meaning greater exposure.
In another study, we wanted to get data on an individual level, so we used an online survey tool to recruit 145 owners of either a cat or a dog — not both. We gave participants an imaginary $2,000 and asked them to invest some of it in a risky stock fund or a more conservative mutual fund. Dog owners, who made up 53% of the participants, were significantly more likely to invest in stocks and also put more money on the line than cat owners.
The results of this study were also correlative in nature. So in the other studies we tried to document causality.
For example, we asked 225 people to view four print ads featuring a cat or dog and then decide how they would allocate a $2,000 investment, as in the previous study. We found that exposure to dogs made participants more likely to invest more money in stocks.
Another study recruited 283 college students and asked them to recall a previous experience with a cat or dog. Then they randomly read an ad for a massage company highlighting either how massages boost metabolism, boost immunity, and rejuvenate the body — messages psychologists have found appealing to those seeking rewards — or how they ease physical pain, tension. relieve and reduce stress – phrases that work better in cautious people. We told them that the company was offering $50 gift cards to various participants based on how much they were willing to offer.
Students who remembered an interaction with a dog bid significantly higher bids when exposed to the reward-oriented rather than risk-averse ads. In contrast, those who remembered a cat made much higher bids when they saw ads targeting risk aversion.
We think these effects occur because people form mental associations with the stereotypical temperaments and personalities of pets – dogs like Midoo are eager, cats like Mipom are cautious. As a result, when exposed to dogs or cats, these associations surface and influence decisions and behavior, an effect that has been confirmed by our studies.
Why it matters
Pets, especially dogs and cats, are very common and play an important role in the lives of tens of millions of people.
In the US, 70% of households own at least one pet. And 50% say they have at least one dog, while 40% have a cat.
Because pets provide a sense of companionship, many people treat dogs and cats as friends and family members. So it’s only natural to wonder if our furry friends influence us, as do our human friends and relatives.
Our research suggests so.
What is not yet known
We plan to explore other possible effects of pets on people’s decisions and behavior. For example, it is possible that interactions with dogs or cats may make people more or less willing to conspicuous consumption. We also want to explore whether interactions with pets can influence people’s propensity to donate to charities and engage in other activities designed to help others.