Owning a pet is very popular in the U.S. The most recent survey from the American Pet Products Association estimated that 65% of American households (79.9 million) include at least one pet. The most popular household pets are, unsurprisingly, dogs (44% of households) and cats (34.9% of households) .
Psychologists have long been fascinated to uncover whether individual differences drive pet ownership and preference. Most have focused on comparing the so called cat and dog people. Perhaps driven by the natures of their respective favorite pet, cat people are stereotyped as quiet, sensitive, and unorthodox while dog people are thought of as gregarious and energetic. One of the most comprehensive studies to-date  analysed 4,565 participants who took the Big Five personality Inventory and self-identified as dog people, cat people, both or neither. They found that dog people are higher in extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness and lower in neuroticism and openness, even when controlling for gender differences. Contrary to these findings, some failed to uncover differences between the two types  or suggested the labels do little more than offer a different way of saying masculine and feminine .
To shed new light on this debate, we analysed two different online behaviors using big data from social media:
- Mentioning animal names in Facebook posts;
- Using a profile picture featuring cat or a dog on Twitter.
Mentioning Animal Names in Posts
We first examine whether there is a relationship between mentioning cat and dogs on Social Media and personality. We used the MyPersonality data set that contains Facebook posts from 72,559 users and their age, gender and Big Five personality scores. We identified the users that mentioned phrases such as cat, dog, my cat and my dog at least once in their status updates and looked at any correlations with each of the personality traits. We used age and gender information as controls in order to remove our potential demographic skew in the data: females were much more likely to mention all the phrases (Rs between 0.056 and 0.072); older users were more likely to mention dog (R=0.039).
Results indicate that usage of the words dog and cat (as well as a broader category containing >100 animal names) have similar correlation directions for almost all personality traits: higher openness (cat – R = .071) and neuroticism (cat – R = .044, dog – R = .027), lower agreeableness (cat – R = -.020, dog – R = -.019), extraversion (cat – R=-0.034) and conscientiousness (cat R = -.048, dog – R = -.027). However, all correlations are stronger for cat compared to dog.
Just mentioning these animal names is probably not very indicative of pet ownership. Hence, as a better proxy of ownership, we counted mentions of the bigrams my cat and my dog. The correlations uncover a different pattern: both sets of users are slightly lower on conscientiousness (cat – R = -.032, dog – R = -.020), and users mentioning my cat are more neurotic (R = .039),open to experience (R = .030) and less extraverted (R = -.038). Users mentioning my dog have no other relationship to personality traits.
Profile Pictures Containing Animals
Profile pictures are images that a user deems appropriate to represent his online persona. Hence, featuring a dog or cat in one’s profile pictures represents a strong indication of preference for these animals and probably a deep emotional connection to one’s own. We used a data set of 62,338 Twitter users for which we knew self-reported gender as well as predicted age and Big Five personality scores, calculated using an automated text-based model . We downloaded the profile images of these users and used the Imagga API to automatically tag images with their content. We identified 361 images containing cats and 742 images containing dogs and only analysed the 17,978 images that have no human faces detected, as our previous research identified that personality is related to selecting things other than human faces . We then correlated cat and dog occurrence with personality scores controlling for age and gender: females are slightly more likely to have both cats (R = .013) and dogs (R = .023) in their profile picture, while older users prefer dogs (R = .024).
Results show that users who choose pictures containing cats and dogs as their profile pictures are significantly different than the rest of the Twitter population on multiple personality traits: they are less extraverted (cat – R = -.038, dog – R = -.018), conscientious (cat – R = -.041, dog – R = -.023) and agreeable (cat – R = -.030, dog – R = -.015) and especially more neurotic (cat – R = .054, dog – R = -.043). Important to notice is that all correlations are stronger for users with cat pictures. However, users with dogs score lower in openness to experience (R = -.051).
The findings across both studies related to cat people agree that these users are more neurotic (the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability) and introverted (a reserved, reflective personality, which can be perceived as aloof or self-absorbed) than the general population.
If comparing the two groups, both experiments strengthened the findings from previous work : cat people are more neurotic and open to experience, while dog people are more conscientious, extraverted and agreeable.
Our results should of course be put into context; not all owners or a representative sample thereof actually post about their pets or feature them in a profile picture. However, using large scale social media footprints, we painted a picture that is complementary to previous psychology literature on the topic.
American Pet Products Association – Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership Statistics
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