Photo by Marc Campos

Meet Zachary Silver of psychology, whose research and teaching interests involve how animals learn from and about humans.

Zachary Silver

Assistant Professor of Psychology Zachary Silver comes to Occidental from Yale University, where he recently completed his Ph.D. in psychology. He has a B.A. in psychology and music from Illinois Wesleyan and a pair of master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale. As a researcher at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, he studied how animals learn from and about humans. His research has been featured in both academic and mainstream media, including Smithsonian magazine.

What attracted you to Occidental?
One of my primary goals as a scholar is to bridge my teaching and research such that my students have the opportunity to experience every step of the scientific process—from the conceptualization of ideas to the gradual theoretical advancements that occur over time. As the opportunity that Occidental provides to work with directly students in both the classroom and laboratory truly supports that goal. I value the opportunity to build impactful academic relationships with my students, and Occidental’s academic environment and culture is the perfect setting to do so.

Midway through your first semester, what are your impressions of Oxy students?
I’ve found myself continually impressed with Oxy students’ motivation to understand complex psychological phenomena and their enthusiasm for the scientific process. From my first-year seminar, Animal Intelligence, to my course on Evolutionary Psychology, my students’ deep engagement with the course content and their passion for learning has made my first semester at Oxy quite inspiring. Similarly, I’ve been overjoyed by the students’ interest in getting involved in my canine cognition research. I look forward to the opportunity to mentor students in a research capacity while working together to better understand humans’ best friend.

Where does your interest in studying canine behavior come from?
I’ve always been fascinated by the bond between humans and dogs. The way that dogs represent a key component of human life and the mutual benefit humans and dogs receive from their interactions was one of my earliest scientific curiosities. Having lived with some exceptionally intelligent dogs in my life, I then became interested in how dogs could have become so smart. After studying psychology as a college student, I became committed to understanding the nuances of dogs’ intelligence.

What can we learn from studying dogs?
Because dogs have lived alongside humans for over 40,000 years, the study of canine cognition helps us understand the role of domestication and social environment on the evolution of key cognitive abilities. Essentially, humans shaped dogs to understand us and cooperate with us effectively. As such, modern dogs reflect millennia of selection pressures for human-like intelligence. Psychological comparisons between dogs and humans (as well as other animals who were not domesticated by humans) enables a deeper understanding of how the cognitive abilities that I study were shaped by those evolutionary pressures. From a more applied perspective, the more we understand about dogs, the better equipped we are to provide a good life for the dogs that we live alongside and interact with daily.

Do you have a dog yourself?
I have a black lab mix named Maritza who loves the Occidental campus. You’re sure to see us running up the hills and strolling down the quad every day!