Earlier this week, the fine folks over at the ASPCA Pro Blog posted the video below. It is a presentation from a recent TED presenation. For those not familiar with TED, it is a series of presentations that has been going on for years now that features thought leaders on a variety of different topics.
The speaker in this presentation is Tali Sharot --and the topic of this discussion is "optimism bias".
For those of you not familiar with the concept of Optimism Bias (and about 80% of us have it) -- it essentially the idea that we are more optimistic, than realistic about ourselves and our own strengths. In general, we are more optimistic about our ability to have a successful marriage, have successful children, about our ability to get along with others, our driving ability, how interesting we are, how attractive we are and how honest we are. The reality is that about 80% of us think we're better than average drivers, at getting along well with others and more honest than everyone else.
Statistically this obviously can't be true (even though I do think the readers of this blog are extraordinary).
The ASPCA Pro blog then notes that this plays a role in screening pet adoptors as well. We have a tendency to overestimate our own abilities as pet owners, and underestimate the ability of others. And thus, during the adoption screening process, we are often quick to disqualify others from owning pets for doing many of the things we ourselves have done.
Do you or your organization decline potential adopters if you...
--- ever had a pet hit by a car
-- ever had a dog escape confinement and roam at large (at which point, the getting hit by a car is often just dumb luck)
-- ever lied on an adoption application
-- you don't have a fenced yard
-- you don't take your dogs for a walk at least twice per day
-- ever had a pet that produced a litter
-- ever disobeyed a city law, or apartment building guidelines to keep a pet, or
-- ever fell behind on a pet's vaccinations
I think most people, even in animal welfare, if they're honest, will have violated one or more of these policies.
A few years ago I was in a meeting with our city's animal control director with a room full of animal rescue folks, and at one point I dared request that the city consider eliminating it's pet limit (which is currently four). The majority of the people in the room were not pleased with my request -- because they wanted the law to get after hoarders, and abusers. I then just kindly asked for a show of hands of anyone in the room (all animal rescuers) that was currently living within the city's pet limit. No one raised their hands. Not one.
But see, THEY were good pet owners (and no doubt most of them were, and stil are), but they then projected others, in the same situation, as bad pet owners.
Having biases is natural. Most of us have them. But understanding them is really important if we are to make fact-based decisions -- so we base them on facts, not our own biases.
So here are a couple of thoughts:
1) The vast majority of people who come to adopt are good pet owners, or at least desire to be good pet owners. While there are some people who we should deny for adoption, most strive to be good pet owners (even if they're not perfect). Give them the information they need to be successful. Be a resource for them when they get in a bind. And more often than not the pet will be rewarded with a happy home.
2) As yourself realistically if you or your staff would be allowed to adopt from your own shelter. If the answer is no, you're being far too strict in your adoption requirements.
I enjoyed the post, and the TED Talk presentation. Biases are something I've always been interested in and this is a particularly good talk about one specific bias. For more info about bias in decision-making:
The Science of Fear (my favorite of these three books).