Posted by: Anne E. Stuart | July 28, 2010

Common Sense Studies Reveal More Than Common Sense

A common criticism I hear about studies in psychology, and particularly about my area of social psychology, is that our results simply reveal what we already knew from basic common sense.

I just ran across the “Dogs sneak food when we’re not looking” article by Jennifer Viegas for Discovery news on msnbc.com. Jennifer reports on a study by Shannon Kundey and colleagues of when dogs would steal food. The quick findings: dogs will steal when they know they can get away with it (that is, if the human isn’t watching them and the bowl is quiet).

If, like me, you’re a dog owner, you might say “Well, duh, of course the dog will steal if it won’t get caught.” However, that statement, and the research by Kundey and colleagues, demonstrates that dogs have a theory of mind. They are able to place their own actions in the context of others. Dogs know that when the human is watching, they’ll get caught.

Still thinking this is just learning from experience? Kundley and her colleagues found that shelter dogs (those who had not likely been pets) performed the same as pet dogs. So, it’s unlikely that the behavior is a result of living in close context with humans.

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