Thursday, February 27, 2014

dogs, guilt, shame, epistemology, and phenomenology

How do we know what a dog is feeling? Unless we're telepaths—and telepathy is bullshit, last I checked—all we have are outward signs to clue us in to a dog's mental state. Tail is wagging hard? Happy. Eager. Tail and head are droopy? Sad. Ashamed.

But wait—

Are we sure our dog is actually ashamed, even when he seems to be giving us "the look"? This CBS Sacramento article says no: we can't be sure what the dog is feeling just because he adopts the "shame" posture:

The next time you start shaking your finger and shouting “Shame on you!” because your dog chewed up your favorite fuzzy slippers, just remember that no matter how guilty your dog looks, it doesn’t know what your rant is about.

Behaviorists insist dogs lack shame. The guilty look — head cowered, ears back, eyes droopy — is a reaction to the tantrum you are throwing now over the damage they did hours earlier.


In the study, she [Dr. Alexandra Horowitz] used 14 dogs, videotaping them in a series of trials and studying how they reacted when an owner left the room after telling them not to eat a treat. When the owners returned, sometimes they knew what the dogs had done and sometimes they didn’t and sometimes the dogs had eaten the treats and sometimes they hadn’t.

“I found that the ‘look’ appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty. It wasn’t ‘guilt’ but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look,” Horowitz said.

“I am not saying that dogs might not feel guilt, just that the ‘guilty look’ is not an indication of it,” she added. She also believes there is a difference between guilt and shame.

Agreed: there's a difference between guilt and shame. It's a commonplace, in cultural studies, to differentiate between "guilt cultures" and "shame cultures." Guilt is inwardly oriented, whereas shame is outwardly oriented: a guilty person has a conscience that can afflict him even when he's alone and no one is looking; in a shame culture, what matters most is how one appears to one's fellows. American society is a mixture of guilt and shame cultures; Korean society is much more of a shame culture.*

I'm not so sure, however, that I agree with the results of this research. There's a compelling video on YouTube that shows, amusingly, an owner of several dogs who interrogates his pets, one by one, to find out which one had done a bad deed. Eventually, the owner lights upon the last dog, who hangs his head in shame and is obviously the guilty party. Why didn't the other dogs act ashamed? The above-quoted researcher likely has no answer, not having tested this situation. Admittedly, this cute YouTube video is merely one data point and not a comprehensive, systematic study, but the evidence it provides is grounds to conduct studies that proceed much as the video did: will one guilty dog out himself in a group situation?

Another reason to be suspicious of the study is the behaviorist approach itself. A behaviorist doesn't assume that minds exist; instead, he sees organisms as complex nexuses that navigate the world through stimulus and response. (One of my psych profs used to joke, by way of explaining the behaviorist perspective, "Do minds exist? Seen one lately?") I, on the other hand, know I have a mind and am just as sure that a dog is a sentient creature that experiences some sort of inner life. What that life is, I can't imagine: I have no access to a canine consciousness or sensorium. That said, it seems to me that, when a dog looks ashamed, it probably is ashamed about something. Now does the dog feel guilty? Probably not: given the chance, the dog might commit the exact same transgression a second time—and only a short time after having been scolded for the first transgression.

It's an interesting mental exercise, pondering canine epistemology and phenomenology. How do we know what a dog is going though? What's it like to be a dog? I can't say, but to me, it's a pretty good guess that dogs can feel shame.

*Shame, in shame cultures, is linked to concepts like honor and face. Prestige, rank, and standing are all important concepts in such cultures: what matters isn't whether you are guilty; it's whether you look guilty. Witness Dr. Hwang Woo-seok, whose quack genetic science continued for years until he was outed and shamed. Once shown to be a fraud, Hwang made a big spectacle of how sorry he was, even going so far as to appear sick by going to a hospital and allowing himself to be photographed while bedridden. Korean politicians and business leaders, when caught up in scandal, routinely offer operatically tearful apologies to the public, pathetically begging for forgiveness—all in an attempt to restore some standing. When these appeals fail to move the public, the marginalized person may even kill himself, as President Noh Mu-hyeon did. Such is the power of shame: if society can't live with you, then you can't live with yourself.

In America, by contrast, it's hard to find a politician who can be motivated by shame to apologize for anything. Chris Christie hasn't fallen on his sword for Bridgegate and the other scandals now collecting around him; Kathleen Sibelius hasn't tendered her resignation for botching the Obamacare website's rollout; Bill Clinton, despite being a serial sexual predator, still has no trouble showing his face at pro-feminism events.

One could counter that, in the above American examples, something like the shame culture still obtains. How so? Because in each case, none of the politicians was definitively shown to be guilty of wrongdoing. Scandals can be spun; US politicians often talk about optics, i.e., how a situation looks to outsiders. That sort of thinking is very much rooted in a shame-culture paradigm. Clinton feels he can show his face because, at worst, he had an "inappropriate relationship" (his words) with Monica Lewinsky, and those other sex scandals are far in the past. In Clinton's mind, that's enough to exculpate him. Chris Christie, despite his "buck stops here" reputation, still maintains he knew nothing about the Bridgegate scandal that unfolded right under his nose. For Christie, the maintaining of innocence is enough to allow him to show his face in public. Kathleen Sibelius has dodged guilt through spin: even Apple has problems when it rolls out a new e-product, she claims, so it should come as no surprise that Obamacare's website has some minor glitches. Positive spin repairs the optics; as long as things look good, they run smoothly. Are any of these powerful people kept awake at night by their lack of integrity? No—of course they aren't.

For Koreans, though, even the taint of scandal is enough to provoke shame. Some politicians will try to worm their way out of the shame zone, but for many, this isn't possible: public pressure is just too great. In America, by and large, this taint comes specifically with sex scandals (witness the self-destruction of Anthony Weiner, for the liberals, or the Reverend Ted Haggard, for the conservatives): for an American, even to be accused of sexual impropriety is enough to destroy a career. Rich, powerful politicians might spin their way out of such a mess, but a lowly high-school teacher accused of having sex with a student has no recourse to money and privilege. Such a teacher, even if not guilty, must wear the scarlet letter forever.

All of that being said, Americans are still capable of being "shameless" in a way that Koreans can't. Madonna has survived any number of disreputable situations; in fact, she thrives on such things: they make her edgy. The same goes for British actor Hugh Grant who, thanks to his encounter with an American prostitute, can now trade on something of a "bad boy" reputation. (Ditto for Russell Crowe and his anger-management problems.) What goes for American celebrities can apply, in some cases, to American politicians. Anthony Weiner, mentioned above, incredibly felt that it was his duty to run for mayor of New York City despite having texted embarrassing images of his tumescent genitals to women who were not his wife. Shame obviously didn't hold him back; his ego proved more powerful than any sense of shame. Korean movie stars, by contrast, have been harassed to the point of suicide by scandalized, abrasive "fans." The Korean sense of rejection can be strong enough to override rationality, pushing the ostracized person to the spiritual limit. It's a sad fact that, for many Korean celebrities who commit suicide, their suicide notes generally include some sort of apology to their fans.


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