As a pet owner, there’s nothing more than I would love if my cats could talk to us. When our cats Maya and Wyatt are acting irrationally, I often tell my beautiful girlfriend, Tristin, that I wish they could talk. I also wonder what they would say if they could talk. Our cat Maya seems to have the most random mood swings where she’s purring and cuddling you one minute, and the next minute she’s scratching you. Meanwhile, Wyatt just seems like a grumpy old man, and I think, “If this cat could talk for a day, what would he say? Would he have a conversation with us or just demand for us to give him more food?”
Well, if you’re like me and dream of a day where animals can talk to me, you may be inclined to believe the videos of this viral Tik Tok dog are real. Alexis Devine is the owner Bunny, a dog who uses buttons to communicate with Alexis. Although I wish this were real, today, we’re going to debunk Bunny.
Now, don’t get me wrong, dogs are extremely smart creatures. In fact, many animals are. As a big fan of the psychologist BF Skinner, I know that behaviorism is extremely effective. With the right incentives, we can train animals to just about anything, but unfortunately, talking isn’t one of them.
While there are some skeptics who think Alexis simply showcases the best takes of Bunny using these buttons, based on the research, I think there’s more of a psychological explanation. We’re going to discuss the ideomotor effect and how it can make animals appear to be smarter than they are, but first, we need to understand the human tendency of anamorphism.
In their book The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters, Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray dedicate an entire chapter to why we attribute minds to certain animals but not to others. This is a fascinating chapter, but for the purpose of this video, we’re going to focus on anamorphism. Anamorphism is a distorted projection or perspective; especially an image distorted in such a way that it becomes visible only when viewed in a special manner.
Anamorphism is the reason why people like Alexis can easily make us believe that Bunny can talk with these buttons, and Alexis probably believes it as well. When we understand the history of talking animals, we can get a little closer to the truth, and that’s why we’re going to discuss the story of the math-solving horse named Clever Hans.
Debunking Clever Hans
Over 100 years prior to Alexis and her talking dog Bunny was a math-solving horse by the name of Clever Hans. In the early 1900s, a man by the name of Herr Wilhelm Von Osten owned a horse named Hans who could apparently solve complex math equations. A horse that can solve complex math is quite the sight, so Von Osten made quite a bit of money touring with Hans and doing shows.
Von Osten taught Hans to not only add and subtract, but Hans could multiply, divide, and work with fractions. Unlike Bunny, Hans didn’t have buttons to press, so he would count out the answers by tapping his hoof. If you asked Hans “What’s 12 plus 12?”, he would tap his hoof 24 times. “What’s 10 divided by 2?” Hans would tap 5 times. Much like Bunny, it was incredible. Back then, they didn’t have TikTok or viral sites like Mashable, so Hans mainly received his clout from newspapers and word of mouth.
But, even though people were more likely to believe in the unbelievable back then, there were still skeptics and critical thinkers. Some of these critical thinkers were psychologists, and they believed that there was a better explanation for Clever Hans than a horse being able to do math.
This psychologist was a man by the name of Carl Stumpf, and his work is referenced in some of my favorite books on supernatural psychology like Supersense by Bruce Hood and Paranormality by Richard Wiseman. I actually first learned of Carl Stumpf in The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe by Dr. Steven Novella. Stumpf’s work is so popular because, during a time when people believed much more in the supernatural, he was brave enough to go against the group and try to discover the truth.
Stumpf was able to get Von Osten to agree to let a team research Clever Hans to see if the horse really had these abilities or if it was something else. In order to do this, they had to set up a series of experiments, and the first variable they wanted to factor out was Von Osten. To ensure Von Osten wasn’t somehow giving Hans the answers or saying some type of code with his wording, they had other people ask Hans the questions. Surprisingly, Hans was still able to answer correctly.
Score 1 for Clever Hans and Von Osten
But then, Stumpf started to wonder if Hans was clever but just in a different way. If Hans wasn’t getting the answer through language, maybe it was through sight. So, Stumpf and his team hid Von Osten from Hans’ view with a sheet, and Von Osten would ask the questions. Low and behold, Hans couldn’t get any of the answers right. Then, they duplicated Hans’ inaccuracies with other people.
So, what was going on?
While many people would assume that Von Osten somehow figured out signals to give to Hans intentionally, the consensus is that Von Osten was just as clueless as everyone else. This is when Stumpf and his colleagues discovered that we often make unconscious movements without even realizing it, which was later called the ideomotor effect. If you remember my previous video on ouija boards for the supernatural psychology series, this explains why we believe ouija boards are actually being moved by spirits beyond the grave.
Much like other animals, Clever Hans was extremely intelligent, but in a different way. Hans didn’t know how to do complex math, but he did know how to read the slightest body movements when he would tap and reach the right answer. These subtle movements were his signal to stop tapping, which gave the appearance of him knowing the answer.
So, now that we know the story of Clever Hans and the ideomotor effect, what’s up with Alexis and her dog Bunny?
So, What’s Up with Bunny?
By now, I’m sure some of you reading are upset and defending Bunny. You’re looking for explanations that explain how Bunny is the real deal, and I get it. Some of you may even be pointing to gorillas who use sign language as proof that animals can speak. Yes, it’s true that some primates can use sign language, but we often neglect to realize that the brain of a gorilla and the brain of a dog are completely different.
As humans, we make the mistake of lumping many animals together, but the reality is that they all have different capabilities based on the nuances of their evolution. We need to remember that the brain of a gorilla is much closer to the brain of a human than a dog’s brain is to a gorilla.
So, is Alexis lying to us? Is this all a setup to go viral?
Personally, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I don’t think Alexis is playing an elaborate hoax on all of us. I choose to believe that much like Clever Hans and Von Osten, Alexis may not realize that she’s giving Bunny cues that give the appearance that Bunny can talk.
Without doing a proper experiment, it’d be hard to prove my theory, so, I thought we could just discuss what a proper experiment would look like.
Much like with the story of Clever Hans, we’d have to run an experiment with multiple variables. First, we’d need to see if Bunny would answer when someone else asks the questions, and we’d also need to see if Bunny could answer without seeing the person. Bunny might be extremely smart, but like Hans, she’s most likely reading other cues.
Another theory I have is that Bunny notices the happy tone in Alexis’ voice when she presses buttons that are coherent. This type of conditioning can train Bunny to press certain sequences.
It’s also important to note that we would need an experiment to verify that Bunny wanted what she said. For example, if Bunny used the buttons saying she was hungry but didn’t eat, that would disconfirm Bunny’s understanding of language. Or, what if Bunny said she needed to go outside to use the bathroom but didn’t go? Remember, a good scientist always tries to debunk themselves to find alternative explanations for events.
Finally, as a skeptic, I think it’s important to point out how we attribute meanings to the meaningless. As we’ve discussed in other articles, our brains are constantly trying to make connections. This is why we believe in superstitions, but it’s also why we think our pets are trying to communicate. At the 2:34 mark of the Mashable video, Alexis repeats what Bunny’s buttons pressed, “Love you. No.” And this is just another example of anamorphism.
I’d be willing to bet that if you monitored Bunny for an entire day, you’d see her pressing a bunch of random buttons that we could somehow find meaning in some of the gibberish. Like the infinite monkey theorem states: a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text.
If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.