"I have the power to save the one you love! You must choose!"
December 3, 2008 11:52 PM   Subscribe

Completely random question that's kinda hard to look up on Google: If you take your beloved toddler or puppy (or perhaps kitty too) and make it decide between going to you as you call for it, or going to someone else that calls for it, who equally has the subject's affections, what choice does it ultimately make?

Stay there in an obvious state of emotional confusion? Cry? Eventually go for one and not the other? Go for one and then quickly the other to make sure no feelings are hurt? Go in between the two and stay there? Leave the room?

There probably won't be much more than anecdotal evidence, but I'm curious if one particular outcome is decidedly more likely than the other, or even if some scientists as twisted as I may be actually decided to test this dilemma thoroughly.

Please, try this at home, even though it's what you might call... "cruel."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Grab Bag (14 answers total)
 
For the wording of the question, the outcome will probably depend on mood of the day, smell of the day (for puppies and kitties), or just some random thing that directs attention to one party at the moment.

For the wording of the title (a life at stake), neither the animal nor the toddler will comrehend the question.

IMO and not empirically verified, of course.
posted by uncle harold at 12:08 AM on December 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


i don't think a toddler or animal would understand the concept of an adult's feelings being hurt by the toddler or animal choosing to go to another adult.
posted by Xianny at 12:10 AM on December 4, 2008


This is actually a problem that has been mused upon since at least the medieval era; searching for Buridan's ass may help you to find much of what's been thought/written about it.
posted by muhonnin at 12:17 AM on December 4, 2008


Not that this answers the first part of your question, but I recall a similar reference to this in a novel or short story I've read, where it's posited that a cow placed exactly equally between two haystacks will starve to death because - both being equidistant and equally appealing - it can't decide which one to chose.

Someone - another character, or the narrator, or the authors narrative, I forget which - points out that this is stupid, because it will eventually turn its head so that one of the two choices fills more of the cow's FoV / appears closer / more appealing, and so it'll chose that one.

On preview: it's a retelling of Buridan's Ass. But none of the popular culture links in that wikipedia article is the one I'm (failing to ;-) recall.
posted by Pinback at 12:25 AM on December 4, 2008


Whereas your calling means "Please, tell us whom you love more" to you, it just means "Hey, look over here" to them. Not a dilemma for them.

Hands down, my dogs always go to my SO first because he walks them more often and gives them treats. They aren't swayed by the fact that I get them their medical care. No contest there!

So, yes, I'll go with a straight-up Spooner-style behavioral theory here. In the absence of prefrontal psychodrama (What are they thinking? What do I want them to think?), the sentient being will go to the person who is more associated with pleasant experiences. Or who is holding the shiniest/tastiest object.
posted by ebellicosa at 12:43 AM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


What ebellicosa said. Its impossible to set up truly symmetrical situation.

I've tried this several times for the humor. The dog goes towards the person that, per routine, is most likely to provide them with what they want. If its the afternoon, for example, and one person generally takes them on afternoon walks, then the dog will go towards that person. If the dog is hungry and one person feeds them more often, the dog will go there.
posted by vacapinta at 1:02 AM on December 4, 2008


The baby/puppy/donkey/cow would not sit in the middle indecisively and starve for food or affection. He/she/it would go one way or the other more or less randomly even if both sides were completely equally attractive.

The argument that they would stay in the middle is based on the assumption that there would have to be a rational (as in pursuing ends by the most efficient means available) decision made. Since both options would do equally well in reaching desired ends, and both are equally efficient, there's no rational means to choose between them.

I say that even though it's true that there may be no rational means they would still choose. I say this based on having read once that people use emotions in making even the most mundane/non-emotional decisions. So if you look at people who have no emotions (I believe this was a brain lesion issue), they have trouble making very simple decisions like what to order at a restaurant. When faced with decisions where there is no right rational answer, people just go with their gut, which requires no rationality in the above sense:

"De Sousa (1987) arqued that emotions enable us to choose among options none of which is rationally superior to the others. Recently, Damasio (1994) offers a book-length iscussion of this view, based on work with patients with brain lesions. Although he speculates that 'Reduction in emotion may constitute an [...] important source of irrational behaviour'(p. 53), his work only supports the weaker conclusion that - 'The powers of reason and the experience of emotion decline together' (p. 54). In other words, he proves correlation - brainlesioned patients are both emotionally flat and unable to make decisions - but not causation. His conjecture is that in order to make up our minds in largely indeterminate situations we use 'somatic markers' (gut feelings) that are not available to the emotionally disabled, who for that reason tend to procrastinate indefinitely. It is indeed true that often what matters is to make some decision rather than any particular decision. If Damasio's conjecture is true, the emotions do make a contribution to rationality. It does not seem, however, that they also help us to make the best decision when that matters."
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:41 AM on December 4, 2008


A cat would just walk away, silently giving you both a big "F U" for interrupting his naptime.
posted by desjardins at 8:04 AM on December 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


In my experience (we used to do this to our dogs all the time, since my brother and I had a somewhat jealous relationship), since they don't have any idea what you really mean by the experiment, they simply go to whoever is louder and more urgent, whoever has bacon, whoever is nearer the door if they want to go for a walk, whoever is holding the ball you've just been throwing for them, whoever has least recently disciplined them, whoever has most often fed them, etc. Sometimes they get confused and run back and forth a bit first, but eventually they settle on one person they most want to see at that moment.

Your hypothetical really requires all things being equal, and all things are never equal.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:31 AM on December 4, 2008


Nthing ebellicosa and vacapinta. Given the choice between me, my husband, or a random stranger/ax murder who smells like he might have touched a Milk Bone sometime last week, our doggies will choose option 3.

Unless it's dinner time, in which case having the tractor beams from the USS Enterprise focused on their butts could not make them move out of the designated feeding area.
posted by txvtchick at 10:37 AM on December 4, 2008


In my experience (we used to do this to our dogs all the time, since my brother and I had a somewhat jealous relationship), since they don't have any idea what you really mean by the experiment, they simply go to whoever is louder and more urgent, whoever has bacon, whoever is nearer the door if they want to go for a walk, whoever is holding the ball you've just been throwing for them, whoever has least recently disciplined them, whoever has most often fed them, etc. Sometimes they get confused and run back and forth a bit first, but eventually they settle on one person they most want to see at that moment.

Your hypothetical really requires all things being equal, and all things are never equal.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:31 AM on December 4 [+] [!]


My brother and I used to do this all the time too. Sometimes we still do. My dog isn't traumatized -she's just happy she gets so much attention and excitement no matter which one of us she chooses.
posted by KAS at 1:07 PM on December 4, 2008


Good point, KAS. The dogs in question were never anything less than thrilled to have two! two! humans wanting to pet them and give them hugs and belly rubs at the same time.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:14 PM on December 4, 2008


I'm not reading all the above posts. Consider that pets don't overthink like MeFites. The pet will go to one person for no particular reason. Then later it may, or may not go, to the other peron. Or it may rapidly alternate between the people. The pet has no idea that you give a shit.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:47 PM on December 4, 2008


For the wording of the title (a life at stake), neither the animal nor the toddler will comrehend the question.

That wasn't at all serious... just a terribly stilted line from a certain movie that I otherwise liked. I was more amused by that as a title than my other choice, a certain Tom Petty song.

Thanks for the responses and anecdotes. I kind of felt like dogs in particular would have a deep emotional attachment to their owners, thus responding to their beckoning would be unlike a kid who eagerly greets their dad when he comes home, only to ask "Did you bring me anything?" and then runs off when all you have to offer is a hug.

And thus their dilemma wouldn't be an entirely superficial one (unlike a cat's, perhaps). After all, when a dog comes to you, it doesn't back off when it sees you have neither a leash or Beggin' Strips, right? I suppose short-term memory might be a factor in that a dog might randomly pick Timmy on the left, and once there, will already have forgotten that the round-headed kid on the right was calling for him also.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:22 AM on December 5, 2008


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