Cat people and dog people: so different, right? Cats, after all, are a bit emotionally opaque and pretty wishy-washy about their need for human attention. Dogs, on the other hand, are attention-hounds (sorry) who can’t get enough human approval and attention. Surely your choice of a dog or a cat as a pet must reveal something about your personality and other preferences.
Well, it’s complicated. Take a blog post published Sunday by Facebook researchers Moira Burke, Lada Adamic, Amaç Herdağdelen, and Dirk Neumann, who noted the sheer quantity of dog-person-vs.-cat-person debate and discussion. “To answer these questions,” the researchers write, “we dug our claws into aggregate, de-identified data from a sample of about 160,000 people in the United States who shared photos of cats or dogs (or both) on Facebook.”
The analysis revealed a bunch of enticing details. “Yep, the stereotypes are true: dog people are more outgoing, measured in terms of Facebook friends,” write the authors. “On average, dog people have 26 more Facebook friends than cat people. Like their extroverted pets, dog people make more connections online. On the other hand, cat people get invited to more events, so they’re putting their friendships to good use! [emphasis in the original]”
The researchers are having a bit of fun with all this — there are, of course, a zillion reasons why it might be that in a big sample of Facebook users cat people get invited to more parties. What’s great about their post, in fact, is how straightforward the researchers are, in the charts they present, about the fact that a lot of what they found doesn’t quite jibe with stereotypes we might hold about dog people and cat people. And if you read between the lines, you can see how easy it might be to cherry-pick if you did want to tell a funny, simple story.
Take, for example, preferences in movies. On Facebook, dog owners are significantly more likely than cat owners to be fans of the Facebook pages for The Hangover and The Blind Side. Makes sense, right? Dog owners are much likelier to be bro-ey guys, and as we all know bros love films like The Hangover and The Blind Side.
Except take a look at the full movies chart from the post:
Dog owners are also significantly more likely to like the Facebook pages for Fifty Shades of Grey and Pretty Woman. It’s hard to come up with a neat, tidy explanation for why that might be. Which ties into a very important point for anyone who writes or thinks about human beings: It’s perilous to come up with big, broad, simple stories about our species’ behavior and preferences, because if you actually do the work of digging, you’ll often find counterexamples that disrupt tidy narratives. Plus, when stories feel right we’re way more likely to get sucked into them via confirmation bias, which can shut off or tamp down our ability to think critically.
Science of Us’s Cari Romm nicely captured this in her April article about the differing personalities of dog people and cat people: Yes, if you zoom out and take big samples, you will find some differences — not just when it comes to personality, but interests and other stuff as well — but you need to be really careful about telling a causal story connecting pet preference to other characteristics. Things are way too complicated to say “Cat people like X because Y.” As Romm put it, “Do people like dogs or cats because their personalities drive them in a certain direction, or do they like dogs or cats because they want to convey that they’re the type of person to prefer one over the other?” There are dozens of questions like this one could ask about cat people versus dog people or just about any similar line of inquiry — questions which are really tough to fully unravel.
And for every cute, tidy correlation, there’s a confusing one that muddies the waters a little — for every dog owner who likes The Blind Side, in other words, there’s another one who can’t get enough Pretty Woman.