Commentary / World

You're better at choosing a pet than a spouse

by Faye Flam

Bloomberg

Bad decisions are certainly a scourge — up there with bad luck as a factor blamed for debt, loveless marriages, general misery and poor health. There’s hope, though. We might find a key to better decisions, and a happier life, in the echoing halls of an animal shelter.

The best decision I’ve made in recent years was impulsive, borderline mindless. I drove to my local animal shelter and returned with an oversized senior cat named Pooh Bear. He’d seemed a bit depressed in the shelter, but I was convinced for no rational reason that he was wonderful. Years later, I can attest that he is in fact wonderful.

Can I take any credit for this good decision? Maybe. When scientists who study decision-making looked at the way people pick pets, they found we’re actually not that bad at it.

In considering the lessons of the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” I would seem to have employed what the authors dubbed System 1, which is fast and intuitive, as opposed to the more analytical System 2. For some kinds of choices, System 1 might be superior. Using System 2, people can overthink things — before and after a decision.

Scientists are still working this out. Samantha Cohen, a psychology graduate student at Indiana University, said she was curious about a phenomenon her adviser had found with dating choices. When asked what they want in a date or partner, people say one thing, but then they choose someone with very different traits.

Because she had been volunteering in an animal shelter, she wanted to see whether a similar discrepancy showed up when choosing a dog. So she asked would-be dog owners about their preferences in appearance (small or large, light coat or dark, etc.) as well as behavioral traits such as playfulness and anxiety.

What she found was that people actually did tend to pick dogs that they thought matched their desired traits.

In a paper describing the experiment in Behavior Research Methods, she and her adviser, Peter Todd, noted that 43 percent of marriages end in divorce within the first 15 years, but only about 13 percent of people who take home a shelter dog return it.

The success rate is especially worth noting because before deciding on a committed relationship with a dog, we’re operating with less information: We can’t go on dates with prospective pets, or get them to talk about themselves. We presumably also think about it less than most people think about marriage.

Todd said that other experiments have shown that overthinking can impair judgment. He sent me a fascinating paper showing that volunteers made choices that were close to experts in judging different brands of strawberry jam. But their alignment with the experts slipped when they were asked to come up with criteria upon which to judge.

No wonder decision-making is so treacherous. We can screw up by either thinking too little or too much. We can also end up unhappy with a good or neutral decision by thinking too much about it after making it. It’s possible that in many cases, our decisions don’t have the power we attribute to them, or they become powerful because we fixate on them.

People who think their chosen spouse is uniquely suited to make them miserable might be equally unhappy with any number of different people. I might have been just as happy if I now lived with Bandit or Valentine or Winston Churchill, all cats that were available when I went to the shelter. But given how much I like Pooh Bear, I’m not going to think about it any more.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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