Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Not Fair! Even Dogs Know the Importance of Gift-Equity

Don't leave out your best friend when
gift-giving this holiday season!
Photo by Ohsaywhat at Wikimedia.
When I was a child, I think one of the things that stressed my mom out most about the holidays was making sure that all of us kids got Christmas gifts worth the exact same amount. Why all the fuss? Because if the value of the gifts wasn’t equal, we were guaranteed to spend our holidays in a chorus of “Not fair!” cries rather than appreciating the holiday bounty and cheer around us.

As a species, we have a pretty developed sense of fairness. This sense of fairness is central to our ability to cooperate to achieve goals that are too difficult for one person to accomplish alone. But we’re not the only social species that cooperates… and it turns out, we’re not the only ones with a sense of fairness, either.

Domestic dogs and their wild relatives, like wolves and African wild dogs, are very social and have cooperative hunting, territory defense, and parental care. Friederike Range, Lisa Horn, Zsófia Viranyi, and Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna, Konrad Lorenz Institute, and Wolf Science Center, all in Austria, sought out to test whether domesticated dogs have a sense of fairness.

The researchers tested pairs of dogs who had lived together in the same household for at least a year. All of these dogs had been previously trained to give their paw on command, as if giving a handshake. Each pair of dogs was asked to sit in front of an experimenter (one dog was designated the “subject” and the other was the “partner”). In this position, the willingness of the subject dog to shake paws with the experimenter was tested under six different situations.

An experimenter asks two dog-buddies to each give her a paw and they wait
to see who gets rewarded. Photo from Range et al., PNAS, 2009.
In the basic situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, and both dogs were rewarded with a “low-value” reward (a piece of bread). This happened repeatedly and the researchers measured how many times the subject dogs would give their paw.

In another situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, but the subject dog was rewarded with a “low-value” reward (a piece of bread) while its buddy was rewarded with a “high-value” reward (a piece of sausage).

In a third situation, both dogs were asked to give a paw, but only the partner dog was rewarded with a piece of bread (the subject dog got nothing).

In the fourth situation, only the subject dog was asked to give a paw, but both dogs were rewarded with a piece of bread.

In the fifth situation, the experimenter measured how many times the subject dog would give its paw for a piece of bread if his doggy-buddy wasn’t around.

In the last situation, the experimenter measured how many times the subject dog would give its paw for no reward if his doggy-buddy wasn’t around.

When both dogs received bread, they were happy to keep giving the experimenter their paw for as long as they were asked to. But when dogs saw their buddy get a piece of bread when they got nothing, they soon refused to give their paw to the experimenter (and started showing signs of stress). You may think this is just what happens when you stop rewarding a dog for doing what you ask, but something different was going on here. The dogs that never got a reward gave their paw to the experimenter for longer when their buddy wasn’t around than if their buddy was around and getting bread treats. Clearly, even dogs know that equal work for unequal pay is not fair.

But the doggy-sense-of-fairness is limited. As long as they got their bread when they gave their paw, they really didn’t seem to care (or notice) if their buddy got bread or sausage, or even whether their buddy had to perform the same trick or not.

So this holiday season, don’t forget to get a present for your four-legged friend so he doesn’t feel left out. But don’t worry about getting something expensive – He doesn’t care anyway. For him, it’s the gesture that counts.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Range F, Horn L, Viranyi Z, & Huber L (2009). The absence of reward induces inequity aversion in dogs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106 (1), 340-5 PMID: 19064923

2. Range, F., Leitner, K., & Virányi, Z. (2012). The Influence of the Relationship and Motivation on Inequity Aversion in Dogs Social Justice Research, 25 (2), 170-194 DOI: 10.1007/s11211-012-0155-x

3 comments:

  1. Turtles, too, have (and act on) concepts of gift equity. If I put nightcrawlers of different sizes in front of box turtles in my lab and they can see what others are getting, they abandon "their" worm and try to grab the biggest one.

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    Replies
    1. Does it matter if they are alone or in a social context?

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