By Rachel Skipper:

On most weekends, you can find PBS graduate student Sam Cohen at Bloomington Animal Care and Control, the local animal shelter, where she has volunteered for two years as a pet adoption counselor. She gets to know the dogs, talks with visitors and helps them identify which dogs they might want to adopt. But, according to Cohen, people have minds of their own when it comes to choosing their pets, and their logic is not always easy to follow.

Luckily, however, Cohen is no stranger to the curious logic of people’s decision-making. She is a researcher in Professor Peter Todd’s Adaptive Behavior and Cognition Lab in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, where she and her colleagues study all kinds of decision-making strategies: How do people decide which foods to eat?How do people select collaborative partners?How do people choose romantic partners? By comparing the strategies that people use across different contexts, the lab can study hypotheses about how these strategies have evolved.

As the lab’s senior graduate student, Cohen has spent most of her time studying partner choice. For the past four years, for example, she has been investigating whether people exhibit the same biases when choosing social partners as they do when choosing romantic partners.

Given Cohen’s background in social decision-making, it’s not surprising that in her work at the shelter, she began to notice patterns in the decisions adopters were making.

In a nutshell, it seems that what people say they want often doesn’t line up with what they choose in the end. Someone might come to the shelter looking for a young, energetic pup, and go home with an older dog who would prefer to lounge on the couch all day. Another visitor might say they are only interested in smaller dogs, but take home the largest dog at the shelter. The scenario seems to play out time and time again. Visitors say they want one thing, but choose another.

What’s even more interesting is that Cohen has seen the same pattern of behavior before – in her lab’s research on speed dating. “I didn’t make the connection until one of the other adoption counselors was mentioning a case to a staff member. Someone had found a dog they really liked, but it wasn’t what they had said they wanted. I absent-mindedly mentioned that humans show that pattern in tons of decisions – and it hit me that this was the same phenomenon, in an unstudied domain.”

'Easily the most satisfying parts of this study are the immediate potential implications for shelter policy, which could improve the welfare of companion animals. Millions of animals are euthanized each year in the United States, largely due to over-crowding, so anything we can do to minimize the time spent in shelters and prevent animals from being returned could make a large impact.'

-Sam Cohen

Last summer, Cohen received a Graduate and Professional Student Government research award to begin investigating the topic. She started with a small pilot study, and went to the shelter to survey visitors about what they were looking for in their future pets. Participants indicated whether they had a preference for certain characteristics with respect to age, size, sex and coat color. They were also asked about canine “personality” traits, such as friendliness, nervousness and intelligence. Cohen documented all of this information, allowed the visitors to go through the adoption process, and recorded the choices they ultimately made. She then followed up with participants about their decisions so that she could directly compare what participants said they wanted at the beginning of the process to what they chose by the end.

This experimental design is an important feature of the study. While there have been other studies on pet adoption, most have only recruited participants who had already adopted a pet, meaning that they considered only individuals who successfully found a pet at a shelter. Furthermore, existing data sets do not tell us about the options adopters had at the time of adoption. Cohen is taking a more comprehensive approach to create a data set that will include three critical components: adopters’ stated preferences prior to the adoption, the options available to adopters during decision-making, and what they ultimately chose. This will allow her to follow participants through the entire decision-making process, as is typical in most cognitive science lab experiments.

Now that she has perfected her survey and trained a “small army” of research assistants, Cohen’s study is running like a well-oiled machine. Almost any time the shelter is open, one of her research assistants is there, seeking out participants and collecting data. In the lab, Cohen compares what the person said they wanted to all of the options that were available to them that day. She determines whether or not they chose a dog that was close to the original description of what they wanted. With enough participants, she hopes to create a model of this decision-making process to determine which factors influence which dogs are chosen, and which are just noise and have no bearing on the decision.

So, when is there a difference between what people say they want and what they actually decide? Do people use the same decision-making strategy when selecting a romantic partner and when selecting a canine companion? For now, the jury is still out, but Cohen and her colleagues hope to wrap up data collection and begin looking at their results in the upcoming months.

The answers to these questions could tell us about the evolution of human decision-making. Humans are profoundly social beings and our social structure has become increasingly complex over the course of evolution, expanding to include many different social arrangements, as well as canine companionship. These changes in social structure could be linked to cerebral development and the emergence of new decision-making strategies. As dogs have co-evolved with us, it is possible that we have choice mechanisms that humans developed specifically for interacting with dogs. Alternatively, it could be the case that people are using decision-making strategies that developed thousands of years ago, originally for the selection of human partners, and are now applying them to modern social contexts – in this case, pet adoptions. In evolutionary terms, this would be evidence of exaptation: when a trait evolves for one reason, but later is co-opted to serve a different function.

In addition to these evolutionary questions, Sam’s data will be used to answer questions about the pet adoption process. She and her colleagues will use her data set to gauge how accurately people judge canine temperament, investigate whether adopter-canine matching tools improve the speed or success rate of the adoption process, and determine the behavioral traits that make dogs more appealing to adopters.

Importantly, this research could be used to reform and improve the adoption process, and make a meaningful connection between academic research at IU and the Bloomington community. Some shelters ask visitors for information about the kind of pet they would like to adopt, then introduce each visitor to potential matches based on their responses. If what people say they want doesn’t line up with what they would normally choose for themselves, this approach could actually reduce the likelihood that dogs will be adopted. This study could steer the shelter toward more effective policies and help train adoption counselors to become better matchmakers for humans and dogs alike.