When In Doubt, Don’t Bark

It’s human nature to categorize things, recognize patterns, and extrapolate missing data. Actually, it might be better described as animal nature.

My dog Lemmy uses process of elimination to determine where I hide the treats. He might do so clumsily, checking the same spot two or three times en route to crossing it off his list. But he’s definitely categorizing and extrapolating, ham-handed (maybe ham-pawed, as it were) or not.

Lemmy utilizes basic cause-and-effect to recognize that giving me “sad puppy dog eyes” will nab him some of whatever I’m eating. Incidentally, both of us have the same favorite cuisine: people food. Maybe he cuts his losses with hard-nosed Mom, and doubles down on Dad. He notices a pattern: Dad is more easily swayed to part with the scraps.

He knows that when Mom gets a towel, there’s a possibility that he’s getting a dreaded b-a-t-h. About seven times more often, the towel is for her. Still, every time he gets bamboozled into wet humiliation, there’s a towel involved.

A-HA! How convenient, Mom…if that’s your REAL name.

The result of Lemmy’s logical fallacy? He hides under the bed to avoid the fate worse than death, just in case. That’s what I do when unpleasantness is on the line, too. I can’t blame him.

As humans, we can solve problems much more efficiently than our canine friends.

But perhaps more importantly, we’re capable of something that dogs and the rest of Kingdom Animalia is lacking: meta-cognition. To our best knowledge, we are the only species on the planet that can think about how we think. And our best knowledge is the best knowledge, namely because dogs aren’t known for their peer-reviewed research. Unless “peer review” is a euphemism for butt sniffing, in which case they are world class.

Who knows, maybe we’ll someday discover that another species has deep, reflective, cognition-examining, philosophical internal monologues, just like us. But I’m pretty sure that species won’t be Canis lupus familiaris.

No offense, Lemmy, you’re still my little buddy.

Lemmy is never going to stop and reflect about his impulses. He never pauses licking his scrotum in a moment of existential dread to say to himself, “Man, I need to pull myself together and examine why I am so afraid of getting a bath!” He lives 100% in the moment, experiencing his emotions as a passenger without even an inkling of an idea that he’s a participant in how he feels.

That’s some deep stuff right there. That’s what you get when you major in Veterinary Philosophy at PetSmart University. That, and free vaccinations against bordatella.

Humans can self-reflect and analyze our own thoughts. That doesn’t mean that we actually do it, at least not often or deeply. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say humans’ self-reflection—when it happens—doesn’t seem to manifest in humility or changed behaviors among the masses.

One could forgive a dog for being irrationally fearful of strangers. Tens of thousands of years of evolution have placed a premium on wariness of unfamiliarity over self-reflection. When you’re smack in the middle of the food chain, being suspicious helps you survive.

Lemmy isn’t going to feel like a jerk for losing his freaking mind at a person using crutches to walk. Nope. He’s going to do it again and again without a smidgen of remorse.

Why? Pattern recognition and extrapolation tell him that the person ambling with metal sticks is different than the non-threatening people he sees who are not using metal sticks. Thus, he assumes—likely incorrectly—that she is a potential threat.


“Please, sir, I want some more!” – Lemmy

But if I got caught gawking (or barking) at the same person, I’d feel like a terrible human being. Society would judge me as a tactless dunce. Society would be correct in such judgment.

Unlike Lemmy, I have evolutionarily-honed empathy. I have a highly developed brain that can cognitively suspend being “me” for a split second to imagine what it would be like to be someone else. And I exist in a society that taught me—and the last hundred generations before me—that being kind and deferential to my fellow human is rewarded and expected among our species. To deviate from that norm will trigger a cascade of dirty looks and their associated internalized uncomfortable feelings. Deviate too far, and our species will physically separate you from the rest of us.

Still, most of us operate on cognitive autopilot for the bulk of our waking hours.

We are suspicious of people who look different than those with whom we spend most of our time. We put our faith in anything that confirms our biases. We fill in missing knowledge with self-serving assumptions. We overestimate our own blatantly incomplete information as totally sufficient.

It’s what causes us to see an interesting headline and share the story on social media. Most times, we don’t actually read the thoroughly researched article, especially if the headline confirms what we already thought. Heck, we may not even click on it. If sharing it makes us seem informed, why invest our fleeting time in the diminishing returns of actually becominginformed?

Nah, screw that. There are too many hilarious videos of cats on Roombas, and frankly, far too little time.

Important: if you would like to share my work without reading it, that is completely acceptable and appreciated. 

Oh, did you hear? Some nuns stole $500,000 and went to Vegas to gamble! Crazy. Sounds like the hit buddy comedy of the summer just waiting to be written. *note to self: write buddy comedy script about nuns stealing money for Vegas trip.

That story got shared far and wide last week. The headline had me thinking Mary and Mary went hog wild on a bender in Sin City. I am not advocating stealing, but I have to admit: I smiled at the thought of two ornery septuagenarians in habits getting wild at “Thunder From Down Under” and playing drunken all-night craps down at the Golden Nugget. #goals

Then, being the killjoy that I am, I made the mistake of reading the story.

The truth is the nuns embezzled that money over ten years. They spent some of the money on gambling trips to Vegas. They also seem to have paid some of it back from time to time. Yawn.

Suddenly, instead of holy high rollers on a crazy girls’ weekend, I see two elderly women with gambling problems. I envision them camping out on penny machines while the cleaning crew vacuums around them at 4 am. They sat bleary-eyed while they pumped their last wrinkled $20 just trying to get the bonus one more time. Then, they drove back to the convent, silent and ashamed. Again.

Man, I liked it much better when it was “Nuns Steal $500k, Go To Vegas To Gamble.”

The headline writers knew that the real story was much less shareable than the easy-to-misunderstand headline. Can’t blame them, really. If you’re paid to get shares, it’s helpful to understand what humans “bark” at. And it’s useful to understand that people run with assumptions way faster than they run with facts.

But wait…did you hear that they won’t let ‘em play “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on the radio anymore?!

That’s the one-line version of the story I heard at the airport last week, delivered from one middle-aged guy to another. Heads were shaking. The PC police are at it again. I’ll bet you those millennials had something to do with this, what with their avocado toast and crippling student loan debt that precludes them from experiencing any joy!

When your worldview is one where “they” are chipping away at the way things used to be, it’s easy to view every anecdote as evidence that your anger is well-placed.

In this casea few radio stations decided—at the behest of their own listeners—to refrain from playing a song. Sure, that song happens to feature a woman saying “no” about 7,000 times while a crooner urges her to stay at his place. And there’s a cool reference to getting roofied hidden in the middle…although back then they’d have called it “slipping her a mickey.” Classy-sounding date rape strategies were all the rage in the 1940’s. That, and wearing fedoras. They loved that.

News outlets who cater to the “things were better back when the marginalized just suffered in silence” demographic jumped at the opportunity to pour fuel on the ol’ confirmation bias fire. Posts were shared, cable news panels screamed at one another, William Shatner even weighed in. Good times were had by all.

In the end, sales and downloads of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are up. Radio stations that play music for profit made profit-driven decisions to best serve their own audiences and shareholders. The #metoo movement has awakened previously uninformed people to the widespread realities of sexual assault. A national conversation was sparked on the boundaries between political correctness, art, and feminism.

But those few sentences aren’t going to go viral nearly as fast as “Radio Stations Ban Christmas Favorite, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’.”

As humans, we have the capacity to be more than reactionary dogs. We have the ability to do more than just impulsively bark at stuff we don’t like, especially when we’re not sure why we don’t like it. It’s all the more important given our species’ proclivity to bark at others’ barking.

We must recognize the power of our voices and, in today’s ultra-connected world, our clicks and shares.

Our gift as a species is our ability to rise above gut reactions and employ our meta-cognition to evaluate our own thoughts. When we do that,our empathy allows us to understand one another’s points of view.

Or, we can bark our heads off to spread the news far and wide that we are scared, and thus, we are barking.

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