Published: Sunday October 26, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday October 26, 2014 MYT 8:56:59 AM

Prejudicial dog-ma

Various psychological studies have shown how we are biased against people outside our social groupings. - Filepic

Various psychological studies have shown how we are biased against people outside our social groupings. - Filepic

Various psychological experiments have shown how we are biased against people outside our social groupings.

The “I want to touch a dog” event held last Sunday in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, has sparked off remarkable controversy.

Although I didn’t attend the event, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been rolling around on the grass with dogs clambering all over me. You see, I am not a “dog” person. I’ve kept cats all my life. Cats are intelligent, independent and confident, while dogs wait to obey their master’s next order, while letting their tongue loll in a silly smile. They also smell funny.

But then I may also be prejudiced against dogs.

I have known many cats in my life, and see all of them as individuals. Dogs on the other hand are a bit of a mystery to me. I know they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they’re all pretty much the same to me.

In psychological terms, I consider cats an in-group, while dogs are an out-group. This is a precursor to something called an outgroup homogeneity effect. Simply put, to me all dogs act alike. They are interchangable, and I am more likely to stereotype them – for example, to say that dogs are aggressive and unfriendly.

This phenomenon of stereotyping “others” exists everywhere. Think about the rivalries between different office departments, or between football fans.

With stereotyping comes the risk of attribution errors, when a characteristic is assumed to be “naturally so” or “in-built”. I may assume all dogs are dangerous because they bite strangers. However, if you show me a dog who doesn’t bite, then I may say it’s a special one-off case, or the owner has trained it well, or that the dog is small and scared of me. It doesn’t contradict my original assumption, that all dogs are dangerous.

These biases happen all the time. Nobody thinks of themselves as racist or sexist, yet we all are to a certain degree, and we judge others unfairly because of it. For example, in 1996, a review of 58 different experiments found that when males succeeded at tasks seen as “masculine”, it was more often attributed to ability. However, females who were successful were more likely seen to have been lucky.

You can see how it becomes a cycle. I think dogs are unfriendly, which dogs then sense, so they’re wary of me, which I take as confirmation of my bias.

To break the cycle, one has to do something extraordinary and out of the norm. One reason we have stereotypes of outgroups is the lack of familiarity. So, if we can empathise with out-groups, it can lead to breakthroughs. This was the basis of a documentary series called 30 Days where the subjects tried to live in a community they viewed negatively.

In one episode, a devout Christian who disliked Muslims spent 30 days with a Muslim family, acted accordingly with all Muslim traditions and studied the Qur’an daily. It was difficult at times, but in the end, he learned a lot and said, “Nobody really can describe discrimination until they experience it.”

The Selangor Islamic Department are at the beginning of a similar exercise where they are visiting non-Muslim places of worship in the state. “We want to build an understanding so that in future, religious issues don’t become a polemic,” said one of the organisers. “The important thing is not to let differences of religion be a barrier in having relations with others.”

This is indeed a positive step forward in a country where according to a survey by Pew Research, 48% of Muslims say all of their close friends are Muslims, and another 46% say they are “mostly” Muslims. There is a danger of strong in-group and out-group associations along religious lines as a result.

Writing this article has opened my own eyes to the possibility there are prejudices that I have just shrugged off and explained away. I have always said that I am not a “dog person”, but maybe I have never given them a chance.

Perhaps the “I want to touch a dog” event should have better been titled, “I want to let a dog touch my heart”. I think nobody argues that it’s possible to love somebody even if they come from a different cultural or religious background.

Similarly, even if touching a dog is deemed to be impure and forbidden, surely that doesn’t mean you can’t love a dog for who it is. But as long as we see others under umbrellas of negative stereotypes, we will never be able to shower our love upon them.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s contradictions.

Tags / Keywords: Pets, Dogs, Islam, Muslim, Cats

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Prejudicial dog-ma

26 October 2014

I think dogs are unfriendly, which dogs then sense, so they're wary of me, which I take as confirmation of my bias.

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