Can your dog deceive you?

Yesterday, I was in the pet shop with my dog Martha.  As is usual, I picked up things we needed, then let Martha choose a treat.  Often, she’s inseparable from that treat buy for hours. Sometimes though, she just dumps it the minute we get home and shows no interest in it at all.  Surely she couldn’t be deliberately making me buy things she didn’t really want… could she?

Dog owners (like me) tend to endow their dogs with an almost childlike innocence, seeing them as honest, faithful and loyal companions.  All of that is true, of course, but even very young infants are capable of striking us.  Can a dog deliberately do the same?

Turns out they can! In a nice piece over on the Psychology Today blog, Stanley Coren describes a very elegant experiment involving some 27 dogs which shows clear evidence of deliberate deception towards humans – but only when they deserve it, of course.  In the experiment, the dogs were repeatedly shown three boxes in a sort of canine version of Deal or No Deal.  One box contained a favourite treat, a second contained a ‘so-so’ treat, and the third was empty.  Next, human volunteers were led to a box by a dog, which they duly opened.  Some humans kindly gave the dogs the contents, while others were very mean and kept the contents for themselves.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, the dogs quickly figured out who the kind humans were and who the mean ones were.

And the dogs soon began to take their revenge too.  Kind humans who allowed a dog to keep the treats would be shown to the box containing the favourite snack on 80% of occasions.  Mean humans, by contrast, were only led to that particular box 20% of the time at best, very often being tricked into the empty box instead.  Pretty neat experiment!

So… whenever you ask your dog’s opinion on anything, make sure you haven’t been mean to her recently – she might just encourage you to make the wrong choice and get even!


Finding the brain’s “buy chocolate” button?

Ah yes… chocolate…  Few things in life can be as pleasurable when made properly… except red wine, of course… and maybe cigarettes…but what triggers the actual desire to buy?

Neuromarketers have increasingly argued in favour of multiple “buy buttons” in the brain – little triggers that make us purchase a product when we encounter the right set of marketing stimuli.  So, could there be a little button telling me to buy my confectionary of choice?

A study by Kuhn et al in the journal Neuroimage suggests that not only is this the case, but activity levels associate with the “buy chocolate” circuits could actually be really useful in predicting sales.  In the first stage of the study, the authors used fMRI techniques to identify particular regions of the brain firing in response to six different chocolate advertisements.  In the subsequent phase, firing levels in response to those different ads were used to forecast chocolate buying among over 60k consumers.  The results seem impressive – the greater the levels of brain activity recorded in response to an ad, the greater the purchase rates of consumers exposed to that ad.  Moreover, contrary to previous studies, the fMRI-generated forecasts proved far more accurate in terms of predicting chocolate sales than traditional self-report survey-based preference measures.

Before we all start throwing away our Survey Monkey subscriptions and investing millions on research involving shoving consumers’ heads into giant magnets, a note of caution… This experiment asked consumers which ad they liked best, nothing more, and this does not necessarily equate to asking whether the ad made them want to actually buy the product.  Studies involving surveys which explore intention to purchase – with all the qualifiers normally associated with that stream of research – typically yield forecasts which are way more accurate than anything neuro-imaging can ever achieve.

So, although this study sheds light on many aspects of the neuroscience of chocolate, it may not quite be the breakthrough in neuromarketing it might at first seem.  Pity really…

Happiness and the Couch Potato

Over the years, a number of studies have found that more taxiing and stimulating pastimes are associated with a strong belief in longer term happiness and well-being.  The anomaly, however, is that we don’t often act on those beliefs; we default to for more sedate activities such as binging on pizza and watching television.

We know what will make us happier, then do the exact opposite.  A new study by Schiffer and Roberts in a recent Journal of Positive Psychology sheds a little more light on the so-called Happiness Paradox.  In a large-scale study in the US, the authors found that we tend to associate more enriching activities with effort and so tend to avoid them, defaulting to the notorious couch potato syndrome.  The more daunting something appears, the less likely we are to engage in it, so minor happiness now wins out over greater happiness in the medium-to-longer term.

So, what can be done to counter our tendency to prefer Netflix to enlightenment?  Well, one solution could be to simply prepare more, making the effort we need to expend far less daunting.  Schiffer and Roberts observe that even something as simple as preparing our gym kit the night before can have a dramatic positive effect on whether we go through with that work out the next morning, rather than flopping on the sofa with that oh-so-tempting Game of Thrones box-set!

A Gift of a Podcast

giftThey say it is always better to give than to receive, but the act of giving a gift can be something of a minefield.  How much should one spend on a gift for a colleague compared to a friend, for instance?  When will a socially responsible gift be appreciated, and when might it be seen as being mean?  And should we give the recipient what they really want, or is it better to give a part of ourselves too in the process?


Questions such as these are explored in this fascinating podcast on the Psychology of Gift-Giving, part of the PsychCrunch series from the British Psychological Society.  Enjoy!