DAY 4: Understanding Stress: why happy dogs wag their tails to the right – Dalkey Book Fest

We’re heading into the twilight of this year’s book festival as Professor Ian Robertson takes to the stage.

As he introduces the title of the discussion, why happy dogs wag their tails to the right, a dog loudly barks from the back of the marquee.

“Okay, who’s the joker?” he jovially asks.

Professor Ian begins by putting three puzzles to the audience.

A group of researchers in Italy put a dog in front films of different things and filmed the dogs tail.

“As they showed the dog a film of it’s owner… his tail wagged both sides but wagged more to right.”

Then, when the showed the dog a film of a “big, Belguim beast of a dog”, the dog started wagging his tail more to the left.


The next puzzle involves last years Euros football tournament. In the final, there was a penalty shoot out between Germany and Italy. After showing us a video, Ian says when the team was down one goal in penalty differences, their goalie started diving more to the right than left.

But why?

Finally, he shows the audience different pictures of people kissing. 

He then tells us that it’s been scientifically proven that of people who kiss hello/goodbye, 70% of them kissed to the right.


There is a “tension between avoidance and approach… at core of our lives and lives of all animals” Professor Ian says.

“A primitive conflict between going forward towards reward and retreating from punishment.” Should I take that medical test? Will I buy a house or is market going to collapse Should I ask her out or will she humiliate me? Should I change change job or stay safe where I am?”

These conflicts capture “the essential dilemma” which “is core to many many problems, including problems of stress.”

He then asks the audience to think of the brain in two halves. The back half of the brain deals with taking in information from the world. The front part, the receptive part, deals with acting on that information.

“These 2 half of the brain are a beautiful chervil mechanism” Ian says, referencing a mechanical term. “The optimal way of controlling a system is having two devices in opposition to each other. The two halves of our brain act in that way.”

As a result, one is always trying to suppress the other in “a friendly rivalry way.”


But your brain is “biased towards success…”

According to Ian, “not only are you inclined to believe good things would happen, but evidence for that comes easier to mind because the system is biased to retrieving good memories.”

This system is linked to “natural rewards” neurotransmitter’s of the brain, such as  dopamine which is a natural anti depressant.

The right frontal lobe on the other hand, “is more to do with avoidance or retreat.”

When this system, this side of the brain is dominant, different neurotransmitter’s become more active, releasing hormones used in fight or flight. “Rather than anticipating good things happening, you’re worrying about bad things happening” Ian explains.

“The fundamental character of lives and brain is the tension of antics rewards and retreating… under the right circumstances, either one can become more dominant than the other and lead to problems.” 

Ian then moves along and to what gets us up in the mornings? What causes us to get out of bed and live our lives?

There are three basic motivations; affiliation, achievement, power.

“Some of us are particularly motivated by the need to be liked or accepted”, which is affiliation driving them, Ian says. Each of these motivations has a corresponding fear. The fear of affiliation is “rejection; the greatest stressor known to mankind.”

For achievement, the corresponding fear is failure and power’s fear is loss of control.

“These motivations dictate our lives” Ian says.

“So lets talk about the dog. The dog when he sees his master, he wants to approach them. Because the approach system is more left frontal, that activates the left front part of the brain and that tilts it slightly rightwards, including the tail wagging.” Hence, why the tail wags more to the right.


In goalkeepers, we see this manifested in the motivation to save the goal when their team is down by one and for the kissing problem, this is about achieving a goal – i.e getting the kiss. Which is why people turn right; because it activated a particular part of their frontal lobe. 


“This approach system is a natural anti-depressant” Ian says. “A study was done in Japan to show this drive, this achievement motivation, and how it’s linked to  the reward network.” This is a system that is heavily influenced by dopamine activity.

In the study in Japan, they separated students into two groups. One group was offered money for every correct answer they got on an exam. The other group weren’t offered any money, but they were told the test was a measurement of their IQ.

“So they looked at how much activity there was in reward centre and they found the more achievement motivation the students had, the more activity there was in that area – but only true of those who were told it was an IQ test. For those who were doing it for money, there was no relationship. So money somehow scrambled this motivational system” Ian explains.

He says this shows a “crucial distinction into what motivates us – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.”

There are intrinsic motivations – doing things for your own sake – versus doing it for external reasons i.e money, which is extrinsic motivation.

“This turns out to be hugely important in the extent to which we can benefit from mood lifting good vibes of the approach system of the brain. This system works much better if working for intrinsic motivation rather than external” Ian says.

He then runs through the discoveries of some other studies; such as one that showed people in higher social classes more likely to make unethical decisions, cheat to win, endorse unethical behaviour at work and cut across in traffic. A risky study to reference given many of the audience members live in one of the most affluent areas in Ireland.

“However” Ian says with a wide smile “this only applied where people prioritised material benefits as a central value at the expense of other values.”

Basically, “If I don’t have values” to subscribe to, there are more likely to do these things.

Going back to the “right feel good system”, he says it has its downsides. It can cause “overconfidence, greed, addiction, blinkered vision, recklessness, lack of empathy, risk blindness, and loss of self-awareness.”

On the upside, it can make people “risk aware, have a broad attention focus, experience more creativity, have more self-awareness and empathy.”

As the discussion draws to a close, Dr Ian says he wants to show us the wider implications these systems and brain functions can have on society.

He cites a study done with city traders; on days where the traders testosterone was higher, they made bigger profits.

“If activated, [this system] produces more dopamine and activates the approach system.”

What this shows, Ian says, is “this [understanding stress] is about whole economies.

“Under certain economic and social conditions , a certain part of the brain gets activated and thats when you get the bull market” Ian says.

“Bankers, traders and dealers find it difficult to remember previous disasters, risks, downsides, etc. Then get the collapse in 2008 and then you get the bear market where you get the economic problem of low confidence. People find it hard to remember the good times.”

He said this causes “a mass change of brain function, by the social economic context. People start saving too much. In Japan and Germany it happened [after the 2008 downturn].People are not spending because it might collapse again. Ireland only climbed out [of this mindset] in last year or two.”

It’s an illuminating way of looking at the science of stress.

So, how do we cope with stress?

“It turns out that one of the very best things you can to do cope is to help break the lock of the avoidance system and give the approach system a bit of a boost.”

How though?

“One of the very best ways of doing that is to set a goal for yourself. Optimal effect is when is not too hard or easy, but when it’s in the goldilocks zone. Take action. By simply achieving goals, it gives the anti depressant approach system a boost.”

“So secret of unlocking and controlling stress is to use natural anti depressant qualities of approach system by taking actions” Ian says.

“One of problems of anxious people is because they are locked in a punishment anticipating avoidance mode, they do less.”

They are more likely to choose not to socialise or avoid other actions because “your mind is biased towards bad things happening.”

He says there is “clear evidence that chronic anxious people do less things. They take less action.”As a result, their reward system isn’t switched on meaning they don’t get a dopamine boost.

So the best way to cop with stress?

“Do stuff!” Professor Ian says with a broad smile. It might not be easy, but it is simple.