a little girl lying on the grass with a cute, white puppy

Why Puppies Get Tummy Rubs: Creating Positive Cycles

Word: Puppy

Origin: Old French

Meaning: a doll, plaything, something we lavish care and attention

On the day of my grandpa’s burial, Sister Peace, my then children’s Sunday school teacher, cried more than his children. My grandpa had promised to sponsor her university education, as he had done for many others. He wasn’t a rich man, but he took an interest in people. He was the kindest person I know, and even years after his death, people still talked about him.

He passed away in 1999. In 2015, when I was looking for an internship placement during my undergraduate studies, a woman at the Ministry of Agriculture noticed my surname and started talking about a boss she used to have back in the day. She described him as the kindest person she knew. My grandpa had been a finance officer at that ministry before he died.

Coloured TVs weren’t popular in the late 90s. Our home was one of the first to have one back then. However, even though we lived in an estate, children from the surrounding streets somehow knew that we had a coloured TV and a video player. They would gather at our house every Saturday to watch action movies. Grandpa would sit with them, eat with them, and laugh with them.

Whenever the house was crowded like that, I would retreat to my mom’s room. Because of this, the adults in the house thought I was an irritable child.

As I grew older, my introversion was also misunderstood as an inferiority complex. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have been confidently standing in front of the congregation to preach and recite Bible verses since I could speak. In JSS1, in a school with hundreds of students, I played the role of a herbalist in a stage drama without stuttering. I just couldn’t translate that ability into social connections, especially one-on-one.

The first thing I learned at university was that I would need to socialise and make friends if I wanted to do well in this new environment. In 2013, WhatsApp groups weren’t a thing, so having friends to inform me about unplanned classes or tests was important. I needed friends to save me a seat in courses taken by multiple departments, and I also needed study partners. And when I faced financial difficulties, I needed friends whose homes I could visit for a meal.

Knowing this, I realised I had to connect with people despite my introversion. I developed a method: observe people and find out what we have in common, then use that as a starting point for a conversation. This wasn’t a hack I learned from any psychological resource. I just thought, what better way to get people talking to you than to start from a common ground?

It worked almost every time. One sunny afternoon in front of the notice boards at the faculty building, I noticed a guy who seemed lost and confused, trying to make sense of the timetable. I suspected he might be a freshman like me, so I approached him to start a conversation. He was indeed a freshman and has been one of my closest friends ever since.

My grandma loved animals, and we had all kinds of livestock. She had a hen she wouldn’t kill because it was so beautiful. A lively and dramatic woman, I once saw her stop to sing songs in Yoruba to the hen, telling it how beautiful it was. I watched amusedly as the hen stopped to look at her, as though it understood what my grandma was saying.

My grandma raised hell when the hen disappeared. Somebody had stolen it. I think we all knew the culprit, but for the sake of peace, we dared not name them.

We also had dogs. The first dog I grew up with was Bush, a crossbreed of an Alsatian and a local dog. Later, my grandma brought home another dog, Beauty. The name was a perfect fit for her.

The first time my grandma brought Beauty home, I was terrified of her. The only dog I trusted was Bush, my best friend. Whenever I was out in the compound and I saw Beauty, I would dash like a madman into the house. But before long, Beauty won her way into my heart, and I began to feel safe around her. She joined Bush and me on my evening errands.

Dogs are one of the earliest domesticated animals. Dog experts can’t say who made the first move towards the long-standing friendship between dogs and humans. However, canine behaviourists and evolutionary anthropologists have published several papers that discovered dogs had developed an affection for humans as far back as 50,000 years ago.

Because of thousands of years of domestication and companionship with humans, dogs have developed a trait that is only common with humans — mirrored reciprocity.

Say your dad brings home a puppy one day and instead of caring for it and feeding it, you beat and scare it, the puppy will not become a friendly member of your family. Instead, it will become a terrified puppy that either learns to defend itself or withdraws fearfully whenever it sees you.

Dogs respond not only to our overt actions. Studies have shown that they can reliably follow a set of basic human cues, such as distal/proximate pointing, head turns, and eye glances. They are also adept at flexibly generalising this behaviour to relatively novel human movements, like “cross-pointing,” leg pointing, gestures with reversed directions of movement, and different arm extensions.

It isn’t a surprising discovery that humans, who are mimetic, have developed an affection for dogs.

Our biology and evolution have created in us a psychological need for social and intimate connections. The common need humans have is the need for connection, to find someone who loves us, understands us, and with whom we feel safe. We want to be loved, and we are happier when we find good connections at both social and intimate levels.

However, many of us look for love; we wait for that one person who will single us out from the crowd and warm up to us. We look for that stranger who will smile at us and make our day. We meet a stranger in an elevator and wait for them to smile at us first. Meanwhile, the stranger is also waiting for you to make the first move. And so, both of you stay silent until the elevator reaches the ground floor, and you go your separate ways.

Remember that puppy your daddy brought home? Good. After four days of you caring for it and showing it affection, what does it do? It loves you in return. It climbs onto your lap and licks your feet and hands as a show of affection. It runs to the door to meet you and wags its tail excitedly when you arrive home from work. You have a relationship with this puppy. In this relationship, you invest care and affection, and in return, it loves you unconditionally.

This is mirrored reciprocity, or as René Girard would call it, mimesis.

Human society functions on unwritten social contracts. Some of these are cues ingrained in us through socialisation and evolution, while others we learn. One of these social contracts is reciprocity. In his book, Influence: The Psychology: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini, wrote that humans are hard-wired to return favours, pay back debts, and treat others as they’ve been treated.

We are hardly reactionary. Most of our actions are rooted in mimesis — cycles of unconscious imitations that can affect how well or bad our day goes.

Every day is governed by either positive or negative mimetic cycles. And mimetic cycles start with seemingly innocent interactions between people. Say, you smile at the stranger you met inside the lift and, as we are wired to do because of reciprocity, he returns the smile, which then leads to a hearty conversation about last night’s Champions League match. This simple interaction can make you forget how frustrating work that day has been and go home to your spouse with a smile on your face, which ‌lifts their spirit and makes them share the troubles they had with a customer that day with you, easing them of the tension they’ve been feeling before you got home.

Your spouse is happy, and in return, you are happy; you take that warmth to work the next day, and who knows what that might do to your colleagues?

Mimetic cycles go on and on, but I think you get the point I am trying to make now. When you frown and wait for people to make the first move at warming up to you, they are likely to imitate you instead, frowning in return.

So, we all want the same thing: deep, meaningful connections at all levels. We all want friendly strangers, but achieving this is by being what you want others to be to you.

For some of us, our fear isn’t making the first move. Our fear is what if we did, and the person didn’t return the gesture, making us look foolish? But the reason we have so many people complaining of loneliness is that we have many people who don’t want to look foolish.

Behavioural Economist, Daniel Kahneman explained that most of us are afraid of going positive and going first because there’s a huge asymmetry between the standard human desire for gain and the standard human desire to avoid loss. Remember that we are mimetic beings? 98% of the time, we get back what we do to others. The other 2% when you don’t is an anomaly. But we restrain ourselves because of that minuscule 2%. Isn’t this a poor investment choice?

I like how Peter Kauffman explained this: ‘How does insurance work? You’re supposed to spend 2 per cent to protect 98 per cent, right? Look what you’re doing. You’re spending 98 per cent to protect against the 2 per cent probability that somebody makes you look foolish. Lou Brock set the Major League record for stolen bases with the St. Louis Cardinals many years ago. And he once said, “Show me a man who is afraid of appearing foolish, and I’ll show you a man who can be beaten every time.” And if you’re getting beaten in life, chances are it’s because you’re afraid of appearing foolish. So, what do I do with my life? I risk the 2 per cent.’

We can form meaningful connections wherever we find ourselves by starting positive mimetic cycles. And we do this by going positive first. We’ve spent our lives waiting for the person who’ll reach out to us, that person who’ll smile at us first; by doing this, we’re preserving, even if unconsciously, negative mimesis. So, instead of waiting, be the first to be what you want others to be to you; do first what you want others to do to you; be that person who smiles first, who tries to understand people and make them feel heard. And you know what? 98% of the time, you’ll get what you give.

This is so simple; I wonder why I’d never known this before until I started studying Mimesis. As an introvert who knows that I have to overcome my social awkwardness and make connections at work, it was so relieving to know that all I had to do to make starting conversations with people so easy is to not be afraid of being foolish and go first. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple gesture, like making them a cup of coffee or bringing them a cheap gift. In my case, I’ve got back 100% positive reciprocity in return.

The reason people like my grandpa made positive impressions on people is that they don’t wait for people to be kind to them or love them first; they took the first step, starting a positive mimetic cycle which, unknown to him, his grandson would benefit from someday. And why do we give puppies tummy rubs? It’s because, unlike us, they are not afraid of being foolish; they warm up to humans, lick our feet affectionately, cuddle up to us, and what do they get? Our love and care.

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