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