A light-hearted discussion about cats and dogs this week led Simi Dhawan to question what drives behaviour and to what extent we should believe the statistics we are told.
Would you say that you are a dog person or a cat person? Common belief has it (or what I’m possibly more inclined to refer to as “semi-pseudo social philosophy”) that an individual either prefers one or the other – rarely both, as reflected in their personality.
It was a recent conversation with work colleagues over the weekend that led to this issue being raised wherein it was concluded that I was the latter following my inarguable mini-obsession with a colleague’s pet cats…….or rather, giant cats of the Maine Coon kind. For those of you unfamiliar with this breed, a short synopsis is that they originated in Maine, North America and are renowned for growing larger in size than your average domestic cat, characterised also by longer coats and a bushier tail. I include an exemplary picture below:
I have to say that whilst I do rather like oversized furry felines, I was reluctant to dismiss my love of dogs based on this very factorial – I happen to like a range of dogs – varying from those which are furry and oversized (think Samoid as pictured on the left below), to the downright so-awkward-they’re-cute “Sausage Dog” types (as pictured on the right)!
But questions which ransacked my brain did leave me wondering where these facts, beliefs or indeed myths really stem from. Are they actually rooted in any truth?
In a frenzied quest to curb my curiosity, I ran a quick internet search to see if I could find out whether my colleagues were right about my social disposition, carrying out a short “Pet Personality” quiz online at the following location: http://quiz.ivillage.com/home/tests/catdog.htm. After some rather banal questioning which commenced by asking me about my preference for a “Perfect Friday Night” (of which the possible tick box choices differentiated the socialites who enjoy “a wild night out” from the less extreme independent impartial persons who “prefer a quiet night in with a book” (original, eh?), the quiz concluded that I was indeed, a “Cat Person”, with the following personality traits:
“As a cat person, you approach life with thoughtfulness. You are self-aware and have close friends who will be there for life. The subtleties and mysteries of the world intrigue you. Your ideal Friday night is good conversation or a movie you can’t figure out the ending to. Your take-charge attitude sometimes meets with conflict, but you always surpass expectations when it comes to your work. You value intelligence, grace and independence, which is why a feline friend is best for you”.
Crumbs. My colleagues were right. However, having the typical Cat Personality trait of being intrigued by world mysteries (I would argue true in specific cases!), I decided that I wanted to dig deeper into how public opinions are formulated.
As a starting point (and whilst continuing on with this captivating “Cat” theme), I recall a colleague at the aforementioned gathering discussing the popular TV series “8 Out Of 10 Cats”. A majority will have probably heard of this, but for those who haven’t, the programme is centred on quizzing teams of celebrity respondents about various opinion poll findings and statistics. The title of the show was famously derived from a Whiskas Cat Food campaign which claimed that 8 Out Of 10 Cats prefer Whiskas. Whilst this campaign was one of the first to adopt this style – triggering others to do the same, the inevitable question “overlooked” is ‘What on Earth are these cats / cat owners comparing Whiskas to and saying they prefer it over?’ Is it another cat food product? Is it a multitude of cat food products? Is it something other than cat food such as Heinz Baked Beans (in which case, no contest really!)? What exactly is it?
It is a common underpin of opinion polls used in advertising to state a loose statistic completely out of context, which excludes the comparative element that would allow it to make logical sense! We shouldn’t have to wait too long in an evening before any such campaign graces (or plagues!) our television screens. Yesterday evening, for example, I was informed that 9 out of 10 people with sensitive teeth do nothing about it (thanks Sensodyne Toothpaste) and that 9 out of 10 women would recommend the new “falsies” mascara range to a friend (thanks Maybelline). But in what context has this data been derived? Is this plausible data which has virtuously reached a conclusion from a fair and objective series of questions whereby respondents were introduced to a number of competitor products, or are we, the consumer, being led into a false sense of security by a set of makeshift claims? In other words, are these findings drawn from designing a study that is biased from the start, intending to flog us a “credible” product backed up by statistics?
In the case of our dog or cat person phenomenon, we could use our logic and life experience to assume that this has been clearly born as a by-product of social situations, based on the following premises:
- Dogs and cats are the most commonly owned domestic pets in most Western countries;
- Most animal lovers will lean towards a preference of one or the other;
- This has led to conversations where people have discussed and justified their decisions to keep either dogs or cats;
- The reasons stated are seldom aesthetically focused i.e. about size, fluffiness etc, but rather, behaviours and personalities i.e. dogs are more loyal, gentle, friendly, less temperamental, obedient and tolerant, whilst cats are not as reliant on their owners for walks, do not slobber, take up too much space, are quieter and do not require as much fuss and attention.
Statistics and previous studies tell us that the majority of people are dog persons and not cat persons. I have to say that following a quick chat amongst my colleagues, this point was supported when only 2 out of 6 of us preferred our feline friends over our canine comrades. For more “concrete” evidence, I decided to review an epidemiological study conducted by the Department Of Veterinary Clinical Science in the University Of Liverpool (2007), which looked at 1,278 households in Cheshire (my local area!) to examine the different profiles of households who own dogs compared to those who don’t. The study indeed supported that dogs are the most popular household pet where 24% of those approached were confirmed as dog-owning out of a total of 52% who owned any type of pet (whilst cats came in at a close second with 22%). But did this yet tell me anything about their choices to own either one or the other? Could I yet attribute any of this to a particular personality trait?
Helping to answer this question, the study continued by asking these households what their main reason was for owning a dog, whereby 68% reported that it was for companionship (makes sense – dogs love to remain in the company of their owners versus the ever-wandering cat), whilst 42% reported that they’d always had a dog. The latter statistic brought into question then whether it is actually environmental factors which shape our decisions i.e. nurture, versus an inherent personality disposition i.e. nature. At this stage, my mind boggled more than before and so I eagerly read on……
The report then revealed a staggering statistic; 62% of households who did not own a dog when interviewed had actually owned one at some point previously in their lives! So does being raised with a dog make you less likely to own one? Actually, no. It would appear that social situations change over the lifespan, which is why certain households are more likely to own a dog. To back this up, some of the reasons people stated for not owning a dog included “working or being out all day” (26%) or “not having enough time for a dog” (15%), where evidently a large factor is lifestyle and the practicalities of looking after a pet which demands time rather than a dislike for dogs per se (which incidentally, was the reason reported by only a small 10% of households!)
By my reckoning, public opinions do appear to be rooted in everyday observations and conversations – very much like the one which instigated my Thursday Night Insight this week. However, I would argue that we should always be cautious about over-inflating the value we might attach to a standalone statistic without also taking into account some surrounding facts about the topic or area of interest itself. In today’s example, whilst labelling a person as a “Cat Personality” or a “Dog Personality” helps us to more easily (and mentally) pigeon-hole otherwise complex individuals into a certain segment of character traits, we should be able to accept that it is situations and environmental influences which play a significant part in driving behaviours…and that these can potentially change over time. This philosophy, of course, is one which stands true in all B2B markets where, similarly, you are certainly always better placed to make decisions after asking a sample of your target market the right questions, rather than simply second-guessing their thoughts, feelings and opinions based on secondary, or even dated research statistics.
In short, a poll conducted today, will not always stand true tomorrow……..and as for The Truth About Cats and Dogs……..I’d argue that your best bet is to ask the owners (the most complex breed of all!) themselves.