Study Shows How Cats and Dogs Help People Cope With Social Rejection

PetMD Editorial
Published: May 31, 2016
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What's in a name? When it comes to naming a cat or a dog, it can actually mean a whole lot to a person who is dealing with social rejection. 

In a recent study, researchers Christina M. Brown, Allen R. McConnell, and Selena M. Hengy discovered that when people thought about—and named—animals, it helped them cope with previously upsetting moments of social rejection.

The study, titled "Thinking About Cats or Dogs Provides Relief From Social Rejection," is the latest from the researchers, whose prior works revealed similar findings.

"All of this started from a paper we published a few years ago. We saw that people who had pets on average tended to be happier and healthier people," McConnell tells petMD. "In that study, what we found was that on average, pet owners tended to be better off with things like self-esteem, stress-related illnesses, and exercise." 

In this latest study, however, the researchers had their subjects recall a moment of social rejection, look at photos of cats and dogs, and then name the animals. The study measured the subjects' feelings of self and social connectedness after this exercise. 

As it turns out, the subjects "anthropomorphized" the cats and dogs, which is, as McConnell explains, "when we view animals with human-like qualities."

But, what was perhaps most telling in this study was that people didn't need to have a relationship with an animal to feel a sense of relief from them. In other words, it's not just a pre-established relationship you may have with a pet of your own; rather, if you are an animal-lover in general, cats or dogs can help. 

"People who thought of names for animals felt better after being socially rejected," Brown explains. 

The study also had its subjects name toys, which garnered similar results. "When we think about anthropomorphizing, it’s a broader sense of elevating all sorts of things, whether its plastic figurines or dogs and cats," McConnell says. "When you give them a more human-like status it makes you feel less lonely after a rejection experience."

So what is it about animals that can cause this kind of reaction and response? McConnell theorizes a few reasons: 

"What seems to be happening is when people relate to pets, there’s probably a number of social benefits they get from it," she says. "First, there’s a sense of belonging that this animal 'gets' me, I can have a crappy day at work and I come home and my dog’s wagging [its] tail. For some other people it’s probably much more about control. For some its cadence with their pets—taking [the pet] for walks, caring for [the pet]… you have a meaningful role with this animal." 

So, the next time you're at a party and you're feeling left out, or you suddenly recall an incident from school that was embarrassing, simply think of a cat or dog, give it a name, and your mood just may change for the better. 

Image via Shutterstock