I love the Internet. I love discovering new things, meeting people, and getting things done faster than ever before. But there’s one part of the Internet that makes my head hurt, and that’s the way it circulates bad pet advice.
Generally, I’m pretty pleased with how much good pet advice is out there. I feel honored to write for a few online sites and contribute to their libraries of medically sound information, and I love seeing my colleagues dropping knowledge bombs all across the Internet. Still, I can’t help but notice how rarely these pet health articles take off and how often baseless, confusing half-truths go viral. To be honest, it drives me nuts.
Ever heard these myths?
Ice water can kill your dog.
Tobacco can be used as a dewormer.
Garlic is a great flea repellent.
Febreeze is poisonous to dogs.
Swiffer Wet Jets spray poisons pets.
Vets get kickbacks from companies to sell dog food.
You should never vaccinate your pet.
Heartworms aren’t real.
I know I have. And I understand how myths end up online — the Internet has no built-in fact checking mechanisms. But what makes that false information spread like wildfire? If we look at human psychology, we can see two fascinating reasons.
Confidence is king.
I think most of us working in medicine would agree that Voltaire had it right when he said, “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd one.” We all wish the answers to our questions were simple. No one likes having to think through a complicated response when faced with what seems like simple question, but complexities are often the reality of modern medicine. On the flip side, people are drawn to sound bites. Even a statement that defies common sense can win over hearts if it is delivered with passion and confidence.
Here’s an example. On the question of whether to vaccinate pets, you’ll generally hear one of three things:
No! Vaccines are bad! Don’t do them!
Yes! Vaccines are good! Give them all and often!
Well, it depends… Really, we need to talk about exposure potential for this specific pet, the health status of this specific pet, vaccine risk factors, and the availability and reliability of titers for measuring current immunity, among other considerations.
So, which of these three positions do you think is medically sound? Which is also the least persuasive when tweeted out in 140 characters or used as the title of a blog post? Exactly. The third choice — the complex one.
The irony is that people spreading incorrect advice often do it with complete confidence, while people working to provide accurate information come across as uncertain. That’s because they are constantly learning, finding new data, and trying to communicate a complete picture. The sad side effect of that diligent approach is that the ones offering up complicated truths will rarely deliver snappy sound bites — putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to propagating information online.
Lesson: Beware one-size-fits-all statements and catchphrases. They’re simple and easy to share, but often incomplete.
It’s all about congruence.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to know humans put a lot of stock in the way we think about ourselves. Self image is important to us. We want to believe that we are good, smart, and kind people. Most animal lovers also want to believe they are excellent pet owners. Seeing ourselves that way makes us happy.
When we behave in a way that supports our self-image (say, we take our dog for a nice walk), we feel good, because our actions are in line with our self-image. That’s called congruence. However, if we act in a way that clashes with how we like to see ourselves (maybe we forget to feed the dog before going to work), that’s incongruence, and it bothers us.
So, let’s say we have a friend named Jim who loves his dog and sees himself as an excellent “dog dad.” Jim lives in the heartworm capital of the world, but doesn’t want to use heartworm prevention. He may have had a pet that vomited after taking it, or never used it with dogs when he was growing up, or doesn’t want to spend the money on it — whatever the reason, he just doesn’t believe in using it.
If we tell Jim that being a good dog owner means giving his dog heartworm prevention, he’s likely to get angry. Why?
Jim might feel angry because if heartworm prevention is part of being a good dog owner, then the way he sees himself (great dog owner) and his actions (not using heartworm prevention) are at odds. This incongruence causes Jim psychological stress, even if he doesn’t recognize why.
If Jim wants to feel better — to resolve this conflict — he can do one of two things: he can start using heartworm prevention, or he can justify why he is still a great dog owner without using heartworm prevention.
There is a very good chance that, without even realizing why, Jim will choose the second option because it doesn’t require him to change his behavior. In this case, he will decide heartworm prevention is not required to be a great dog owner. Then he will seek out validation and information that supports this position. He’ll also look for others who share this belief.
This is where a trick of psychology called confirmation bias kicks in. Confirmation bias is the natural tendency we all have to look for information that supports what we already believe, while ignoring or downplaying the importance of information that is counter to what we believe.
In Jim’s case, if he wants to believe that heartworm prevention is unnecessary, he will be drawn to articles or videos or comments that support this theory. He will also naturally skim past or conveniently forget statements that support the opposite. Jim will thus find (and probably share) information that opposes heartworm prevention and restores his self-image as a fantastic dog owner.
(To be clear, my point here is not to stir up an argument about heartworm prevention. This is just one example of conventional wisdom and how it plays into our natural psychological patterns. Please don’t send me letters.)
Lesson: On the Internet, people are drawn to “facts” that make them feel like they’re already doing the right thing and don’t have to change their behavior. It’s just human nature.
Human psychology is a wacky thing, but as we all know, people are the most complex animals of all. The next time you see a temptingly simple headline, pause for a moment and think about whether your mind might be playing one of these two common tricks on you. The real story may be a bit more complicated — but the truth always is, isn’t it?