Canine Self-Control?

An article by Wray Herbert in Scientific American Mind (11/2/10) reports two related experiments with dogs, and reflects on self-control.

The dogs in the experiments by Holly Miller and colleagues at the University of Kentucky were all familiar with a toy (Tug-a-Jug) that contains treats that can be seen inside a clear cylinder. Normally, the dogs could manipulate the toy and obtain the treats. The toys used at the key point in each experiment had been altered so that they could not be opened.

The dogs were paired according to training history and then randomly assigned to one of two groups. In the experiments, owners of dogs in one of the groups commanded them to sit and then stay, then left the room. Owners of dogs in the other group placed them in a cage. If the owner of a commanded dog had to revisit the room to reissue the command, the owner of the paired caged dog visited the room at the same time interval. Dogs stayed or were caged for 10 minutes.

The interesting result in experiment 1 was that the caged dogs spent, on average, significantly more time than the commanded dogs in trying to open the toy.

In experiment 2, the dogs in each group were divided into two subgroups. Half got a sugar drink before being allowed to attempt to retrieve treats from the altered toy, while the other half got an artificially sweetened drink.

The commanded dogs that got the sugar then performed like the caged dogs in experiment 1. The commanded dogs that got the artificially sweetened drink did not: they gave up much more quickly. These results parallel those of several studies of “ego depletion” in human beings.

What first caught my attention in Herbert’s article was the following:

“These findings suggest that self-control may not be a crowning psychological achievement of human evolution and indeed may have nothing to do with self-awareness. It may simply be biology – and beastly biology at that. These are humbling results . . . .”

This passage got me to thinking about what could possibly be going on in the commanded dogs’ minds during the 10 minutes of staying. If they were people, I think they would be talking to themselves, something along the lines of “Got to wait. Boss says so. Boss won’t like it if I don’t wait for permission to move.” And so forth. There might be an exploration of the boss’s possible reasons, or the legitimacy of the boss’s instructions.

Dogs. of course, don’t have language, so they can’t be running a commentary of this kind. But there’s no reason to suppose they don’t have imagery, and I’m willing to speculate that they do. Perhaps they can have images of running around or exploring their surroundings. But they’ve been well trained. Perhaps they also have a images of Master’s frowns or harsh words if they move, or an image of Master’s smiles and good play after a new command that allows movement.

Such imagery would evidently not amount to a narrative of the canine self. But it would have to be a kind of self-awareness, albeit a minimal one. In the first case, the image could not be of just some dog or other moving about – it would have to be an image of its moving. And images of Master’s smiles or frowns would have to be images of Master’s frowning or smiling while looking at it not just of some master looking at some dog or other.

I think we can get a sense of this minimal kind of self-awareness by imagining ourselves doing something. That is not like imagining watching some person or other doing the same thing, and not even like imagining watching someone who looks just like ourselves doing it.

I’m also willing to speculate that there is a feeling of anxiety or tension in the commanded dogs. Images of moving, and of not moving and Master’s good play may alternate. It seems possible there might even be a muscular oscillation in which there is almost a movement interleaved with inhibitions of movement.

The interest of these speculations is not so much whether they are true, but whether, if they were true, we would be willing to say that self-control “may simply be biology”. Part of me wants to say “Well, of course it’s biology! After all, whether the dogs move or not depends on whether their muscles contract or not; and that depends on the state of motor neuron activations, which depends on the state of neural activations in their brains. And that’s all biological activity.”

Maybe it’s the “simply” that seems not quite right. If a dog’s mind were as I’ve imagined it, it would have a psychological parallel to its biological goings on, i.e., a series of images and feelings of tension that represented the merits and demerits of moving.

There is also an interesting question about the idea of “self-control”. This is raised by my belief that most of us would be willing to say that the owners of the commanded dogs who stayed for 10 minutes had good control of their dogs. Are the dogs exerting self-control? or are their owners exerting control?

I’ll suggest this resolution: It’s both. The owners have control because they aim to have their dogs stay, and (because they’ve spent the necessary time on training) can get that to happen by issuing a command. The dogs have control if they aim to earn Master’s smiles (or avoid Master’s frowns) and their behavior actually concords with that aim. – Of course, to accept this resolution, one has to be prepared to allow that dogs can have aims of this kind. (Miller and colleagues do seem to accept this; in fact they go quite far in this direction: “The ability to coordinate rule-based memories and current behavior in a goal-directed way is pervasive across species” (p. 537).)

I was also intrigued by Herbert’s concluding paragraph:

“So perhaps humans are not unique . . . . It appears that the hallmark sense of human identity – our selfhood – is not a prerequisite for self-discipline. Whatever it is that makes us go to the gym and save for college is fueled by the same brain mechanisms that enable our hounds to sacrifice their own impulses and obey.”

If dogs can have images of themselves doing something, and these are different from images of other dogs doing the same kinds of thing, then some minimal sense of self-awareness may still be required for self-control. It is also important to follow Miller and colleagues in identifying the common “fuel” as glucose. That’s what restores the energy that seems to be depleted by the tension between what dogs (or people) would like to do now and their longer-term aims, or by effort spent on solving a difficult problem.

If we focus on the glucose as the fuel, I think we won’t feel humbled by the commonality that Miller and colleagues have found between us and dogs. For the commonality of the influence of glucose leaves it open that there are many “brain mechanisms” that we have and dogs do not have. There are, for example, brain mechanisms that produce our inner speech, which may contain statements of reasons for going to the gym, and these same mechanisms may also causally contribute to our actually going there. It would seem very difficult to represent such reasons by sequences of images, however complex or lengthy.

[Herberts’ article is “Dog Tired: What Mutts Can Tach Us about Self-Control, available at . The article being reported on is Miller, H. C., Pattison, K. F., DeWall, C. N., Rayburn-Reeves, R. and Zentall, T. R. (April, 2010) “Self-Control Without a “Self”? Common Self-Control Processes in Humans and Dogs”, Psychological Science 21(4):534-538.]


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