Research with Dogs Proves that a Strong Work Ethic is Natural?

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BEAGLE AT WORK“Clever boy! Dogs prefer to EARN treats by solving problems, rather than receiving handouts.”—Daily Mail article headline, June 12, 2014

That was the intriguing headline for a Daily Mail June 12, 2014 article reporting the results of experiments with 12 beagles conducted by Dr Ragen Mcgowan and colleagues from the University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden.

Read it again: “Clever boy! Dogs prefer to EARN treats by solving problems, rather than receiving handouts.” Other research reports that the same behavior pattern has been observed with cattle.

In a compact nutshell, the study—titled “Positive Affect and Learning: Exploring the ‘Eureka Effect’ in Dogs” —determined that given the choice between getting treats (especially food) as rewards for complex correct responses with equipment or getting them just for going through a gate and up a ramp, the dogs displayed a preference for interacting with the equipment and responded with what were interpreted as the visible signs of “happiness”, e.g., vigorous tail wagging and other animated behavior.

(A lengthy detailed description of the complex experimental design can be found here, and somewhat more concisely in the study’s abstract.)

That headline seemed to have a not so subtle, biased ideological spin as well as scientific import, namely, that, although we train our dogs to do tricks, they can teach us and confirm something about work ethics:

The spin is that having a strong work ethic is both natural and satisfying (and that if it is good enough for man’s best friend, we can learn it from what may also be man’s best teacher and role model).

But, I shall argue, as a celebration of the Protestant work ethic, it is premature and not compelling.

The headline reminded me of a textbook case I recall about research with a jungle cat in a zoo (leopard, as I recall), which would not eat the dead raw birds fed it without first viciously clawing itself, like a human “cutter” (people who deliberately cut themselves).

What was happening, as the zoo keepers eventually figured out,  was that the big cat needed to pluck the birds itself as part of a chain of its natural instinctive hunting and feeding steps and behaviors. It was rejecting the meals because its critical predatory sequence was unacceptably truncated by virtually presenting the dead bird on a platter.

It simply could not skip essential steps—including shredding and plucking— in its hard-wired hunting-and-feeding mode.

So, it appears that the zoo cats also “prefer to earn” their dinner (by at least working to pluck it, when stalking and catching are out of the question).’

This seems to be the case with many—probably most—humans too: Most women will not skip flowers, dinners, moonlit walks, i.e,, courtship or seduction and their related steps when presented a male on a platter (for marriage, sex, etc.).

They not only want the guys to earn it, but also to earn it themselves—if it is to be credible in their own minds and in those of their judgmental peers (in keeping with the culturally entrenched “too easy to be good or true” cautionary principle).

There are probably at least a few men like that too.

Kids in competitive high school science fairs would also probably be weirded out if presented prizes before their exhibits competed toe-to-toe, tube-to-tube. You may be tempted to think, “They want to EARN it”—just as the Daily Mail headline suggests dogs do.

Marx and Robbers

So what’s going on here? Is all of nature, up and down the food chain, including at the human-occupied pinnacle, hooked on a kind of work ethic? The experiment seems to have been interpreted as proving that, in nature, earned rewards are the sweetest of all—sweeter than unearned ones, and of value because of the labor they require to get.

This sounds like (paraphrased) Marx: “The value of anything is determined by the socially useful labor that goes into finding, creating or otherwise getting it.”

So, whether we are talking about predator cats chowing down, mate-mad males as pursuers, kids as budding scientists or dogs as lab subjects, is there a pervasive and reassuring work ethic operating in nature—including one based on “earning” and “exchange”?

The Difference Between Earning and Gaining

Speaking of experimental eagerness, the Daily Mail may have jumped the gun and the ideological fence by pouncing on the conclusion or hypothesis that the dogs preferred to earn their rewards. In fact, as I will argue, other details of the research and the article itself suggest we not make that leap.

For openers, the article begs the question of “motivation to earn” by describing what the dogs did as “earning a reward” as opposed to “getting or gaining a reward by effort”.

You see, any animal, including us, can be motivated to get or gain a reward by effort without necessarily being motivated to “earn” one through some kind of exchange of labor for reward, e.g., stage coach robbers, who are not exchanging their labor with anyone (despite expending it for booty).

We earn rewards from others only through voluntary exchange of the sort that defines the free market. Otherwise, like the stage coach robbers, we are just getting the rewards, even though we are expending labor for those rewards we get without earning them.

A more objective rendering of the results would be that the dogs preferred to get or gain a reward as a consequence of manipulation of equipment to getting it with no effort beyond showing up.

Viewed this more objective, less Protestant work ethical way, the data and results are consistent with other explanatory hypotheses that have nothing to do with a preference to earn rewards:

—CONTROL: The Daily Mail ideologically biased report seems to suggest that the dogs may have actually preferred putting in an effort in exchange for rewards rather than getting a freebie because they, like staunch conservative Republicans or U.K. Thatcherites, prefer rewards mediated by the invisible hand of supply and demand and fair exchange over the handouts of a powerful, unpredictable master, e.g., the nanny-state.

But however suggestive this free-market rewards model, the experimental evidence and Republican ideology allow that the motivation may be as much, if not more, about remaining independent and being able to control one’s resources and rewards, than to earn them—especially if such handouts become addictive and impair the capacity for independent action when it is needed or merely create feelings of insecurity because of complete dependency.

In fact, the study’s authors suggested precisely that:

“The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward.”

Implications for human work ethic and psychology: Now, control is a matter of degree and perception: If handouts and other freebies always arrive on schedule or on demand, it is possible to experience a limited sense of control, e.g., just open your mailbox, go pick up your check or, if you are a beagle, just drool and wag your tail when your master and box of treats are in the same place.

However, just as we intuitively (even if incorrectly) feel (or expect) we will have more control over our rewards when we are self-employed than when working for someone else, the beagles may have interpreted their interactions with equipment as more directly triggering rewards than merely showing up to collect them does.

Hence, making the connection or proportionality between effort and reward very clear to an employee may foster a stronger sense of control,  empowerment and confidence than either random, variable, capricious, erratic or non-contractual handouts, e.g., a surprise bonus or gift.

—PROBLEM SOLVING: Dogs prefer and enjoy getting rewards through “problem solving” (not by “earning” or “exchange”). This was a contrasting theme in both the Daily Mail article and the research, which the team summarized this way:

“These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.”

Implications for human work ethic and psychology: Creative or complex work involving extrinsic rewards (such as money) for problem solving will result in greater engagement than collecting unemployment checks. It also means that providing employees with a good challenge-skills match may increase engagement to the point of “flow” and put them “in the zone”.

—INTRINSIC REWARDS: Dogs may experience a “Eureka Effect” (the focus of the study) and enjoy learning as its own reward. (A hypothesis offered by the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Regan McGowan. Again this is not the same thing as “earning” a reward, in the economic labor-exchange sense.)

Animal curiosity may, in some species operate that way: Even in the absence of rewards, curiosity and exploration can be very persistent, as though they are self-rewarding behaviors and traits. Broadly termed “intrinsic rewards” and “intrinsic motivation”, these drivers of behavior are believed to decouple performance from externally administered rewards.

Similarly, like virtue that is its own reward, effort—including work—that is self-rewarding, i.e., “work as payment“, is possible, e.g., some volunteering, dollar-a-year posts or unpaid internships and the job of the feet-cleaning fish I have previously described and analyzed.

Implications for human work ethic and psychology: Humans may be induced to undertake work that is its own reward, i.e., offers intrinsic satisfactions and utilities. This is an alternative to the suggested view that somehow we and dogs instinctively prefer “earning” rewards to getting them for nothing—that, in effect we are hard-wired for a strong work ethic.

—INSTINCTIVE AVERSIONS AND COMPLEX HUNTING SEQUENCES: It is possible that,  although dogs may not enjoy the chase as much as the fox (the reward), they may, figuratively speaking, prefer or be programmed to enjoy a chased fox more than one on a platter (completing the obstacle course of the experiment’s equipment being somehow tantamount to a chase or feather plucking, in terms of its being a prerequisite, involving complex actions and culminating in the reward).

Outside the lab and in the wild and for the plucker cat in the zoo, being programmed to instinctively reject free prey can make very good evolutionary sense, e.g., for any species that might be more vulnerable to diseases and toxins in infested, infected carrion or road kill, than if freshly caught while fit.

Generally, a free meal is an already dead one. Perhaps this is why when pursued by some species of bears, we are advised to play dead rather than run from or toward the bruin: We may be short-circuiting the bear’s hunting sequence (in addition to appearing non-threatening) and, in contrast to the behavior of vultures, thereby trigger and capitalize on its instinctive aversion to carrion, rather than challenging the bear’s Protestant work ethic and a sense of duty to “earn” its prey.

The same phenomenon probably underlies whatever natural suspicions and hesitancy we experience when offered food by a stranger on the street or upon finding an abandoned, yet untouched sandwich in a bag on a park bench. Would you eat it?

Likewise many humans prefer growing their own food (as rewards) through a complex planting and harvesting process, in preference to a quick, easy trip to a store, for precisely the same reason: reduced risk of contamination (in addition to a more general sense of increased control and empowerment).

It’s more about control and safety than about “earning” our daily bread (even if the beagle experiment probably didn’t raise safety issues from the dogs’ perspective).

Implications for human work ethic and psychology: It may be a mistake to interpret and extrapolate from the Swedish experiment, so as to imagine that employees won’t appreciate any free perks and instead prefer to earn them, or to fail to take into account the importance, to an employee,of seamless integration of natural steps toward job completion and getting rewards.

It may be much smarter to structure their work so that it closely approximates whatever “natural sequences” of engagement and consummation specific to them or to our species.

For example, an old-school veteran salesman who thrives on the traditional hunt, chase and close may not perform optimally if handed a predetermined computer-generated list of random leads (instead of his trademark approach of cultivating them by personal networking) or has the closing of the deal delegated to a more senior or junior rep (which is likely to make him feel frustrated or resentful).

Learning from the Beagles

These alternative interpretations of the experimental results should serve as a caution: Before we drool over, immediately leap at or roll over for the feel-good Daily Mail “natural work ethic” take on the beagle study’s results, we’d better think about it and do with that idea what your beagle (or cat) would do with your morning newspaper on the sofa.

Sit on it.



By Michael Moffa