Why dogs don’t drink

by Marc Wilson / 22 December, 2014
Think you’re smarter than the family pooch? Then why doesn’t a hangover stop you overindulging?
man, hangover

I have a dog. Well, it’s technically a dog, but because of my allergenic gene pool it has to be a special hypo-allergenic dog. Thus Banjo really looks like a small black mop head with wool instead of fur.

Banjo will roll over, jump and sit on command. He won’t, on the other hand, do anything I actually want him to do – like stop barking at birds, give me socks he’s picked up or even give the ball back after I’ve thrown it for him. I’d like to say he’s an idiot, but it’s more likely I’m just poorer at applying the principles of psychology than I am at talking and writing about them.

Training an animal is a case study of psychology in action, illustrating some of the most fundamental principles psychological scientists have identified. For example, take the Law of Effect (note the capital letters – this is serious stuff) that states that behaviours that make you (sorry, your dog) feel good are more likely to be repeated, while the reverse is true for behaviours that produce discomfort.

Many textbooks illustrate the Law of Effect with a description of Edward Thorndike’s studies using cats in the late 1890s. There may be many ways to skin a cat (though this isn’t the point of Thorndike’s research), but there are fewer ways for a cat to work out how to escape from the puzzle boxes Thorndike put them in.

Because this isn’t Orange Is the New Black or Prison Break, maps were not tattooed on cats and no one was roughed up for a few fags. Instead, Thorndike tempted the cats with food placed enticingly outside their cages, providing them with an incentive to break out.

They could do this by tripping a lever inside their cage. Thorndike observed that initially it might take a while for a cat to accidentally free itself. But after being returned to its cage a few times, it became quicker. The animals learnt to perform a particular action because the consequences were rewarding.

This fundamental principle has become a foundation of operant conditioning – the idea that the consequences of behaviour control whether you (okay, your dog) engage in that behaviour. This doesn’t just work with dogs, though – it underlies the development of a whole bunch of behaviours. Such as drinking beer, for example, whereby you (not your dog in this case) enjoy the buzzy feeling a few beers give you, so you do it again.

But what about when you have a few too many beers, eh? That doesn’t make you feel good, does it, so why do people ever drink again after a spectacular shandy-fuelled bender? Surely the Law of Effect would suggest that you’re less likely to repeat the experience because of the hangover’s unpleasantness?

Of course, this isn’t necessarily what happens. As the Offspring song goes, “I’ve got the worst hangover ever … It hurts so bad that I’m never gonna drink again/I’ll probably never drink again/I may not ever drink again/At least not ’til next weekend.”

That’s probably because of a couple of things. First, if the consequence of the occasional hangover doesn’t always outweigh more frequent or more positive happy, buzzy feelings, then beerzies-yes comes out on the positive side of the ledger compared with beerzies-no.

Second, enter Fading Affect Bias – the pain of unpleasant experiences generally dulls quicker than the joy associated with happier events. Personally, I think this is a less important factor in why we’re willing to hop back on the booze wagon only a week after driving the porcelain bus than it is in why many women willingly have more than one child.

Remember this as party season gets into full swing. Where is that drink taking you again?


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