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#17: Are Dogs Natural Born Stoics?

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


Some people are natural born Stoics.  Without ever reading the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, they develop an ability to avoid needless anxiety, to enjoy the world around them, and to remain optimistic in the face of setbacks.

Other people clearly don’t fall into this category.  Rather than avoiding needless anxiety, they seem to embrace it.  When the thing they pointlessly worried about doesn’t happen, they respond not with a heartfelt sigh of relief, but by quickly and even feverishly coming up with something new to worry about.  It is as if they take their propensity for anxiety to be one of their most important defining characteristics.

Such individuals can, with conscious effort, become more Stoical than they are, but progress is likely to be slow.

How can we explain the difference between needlessly anxious individuals and congenital Stoics?  Are they wired differently?  Or is their anxiety a result of the way they were raised and the things they experienced growing up?

For insight into these questions, we can turn our attention to research, described here, that was recently published by Australian psychologists.  The research in question involves not people but dogs.

This might seem like a curious choice of research subject, but I have always thought that dogs have as good a chance as any species, including our own, of being natural born Stoics.  The dogs I have known and loved had an uncanny ability to avoid experiencing pointless anxiety.  They also possessed an ability to take great delight in simple things, such as a thrown tennis ball, and to retain their optimism in the face of setbacks.

In the Australian research, dogs were trained to think that after hearing one tone, they would be rewarded with milk and that after hearing another tone, they would get a less desirable reward of water.  Researchers then presented the dogs with ambiguous tones to see how they responded. 

An optimistic dog would respond by directing his attention to the tray where milk would be delivered.  Indeed, a really optimistic dog would respond by directing his attention to the milk tray even on hearing the tone that indicated that water would be delivered!  Such dogs assumed that what they were about to experience would be to their liking.

This might sound like extreme optimism, but as I explain in my Guide to the Good Life, it is the level of optimism that a human Stoic will seek to attain:  "We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees his glass as being half full rather than half empty. For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point. After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen. And if he is atop his Stoic game, he might go on to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are: They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what we put in them, and—miracle of miracles!—allow us to see what they contain. This might sound a bit silly, but to someone who has not lost his capacity for joy, the world is a wonderful place. To such a person, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass, and it is half empty to boot."

A optimist will go around expecting life to delight him.  But here is the important thing: when this expectation isn’t met, he won’t become crestfallen; he will bounce back quickly.  To explore this aspect of canine optimism, researchers watched how dogs responded when, after hearing the ambiguous tone, they ended up getting water instead of milk.

Many of the dogs—the optimists—seemed unfazed by this setback.  But there were also dogs—canine pessimists?—who would become anxious on hearing ambiguous tones and who might whine and pace after getting water rather than the milk reward they had hoped for.  (Does this sound like anyone you know?)

One shortcoming of this research is that many of the dogs used were in training to become assistance dogs or security dogs.  Perhaps this training affected their personalities?  Also, they tested a limited number of breeds, including a disproportionate number of German shepherds and Labradors.  One might suspect that some breeds would be more Stoical than others.  The Chihuahuas I have known, for example, seemed to spend most of their waking hours in a state of  needless anxiety.  (Again, does this sound like anyone you know?)

To answer the question raised in the title of this post, it would appear that some dogs are natural born Stoics, as are some humans.  It seems doubtful, though, that many natural born Stoics would be found among cats.

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