What science says about our empathy for animals

In 2017, American sociologists Jack Levin and Arnold Arluk held experiment at Northeastern University in the United States. 256 students were asked to read one of several versions of an article about a severe beating. There were four types of text in total.

In the first version, the victim was an adult, in the second – a child, in the third – an adult dog, and in the fourth – a puppy. After reading, students were asked to rate their level of empathy by answering a questionnaire. The results showed, on average, the following order of distribution of compassion (from highest to lowest):

  • Child.
  • Puppy.
  • Dog.
  • Adult.

At the same time, empathy for an adult was significantly lower than for the rest, and the levels of empathy for a child and a puppy (and an adult dog to a slightly lesser extent) turned out to be almost the same.

Also in their study Levin and Arluk refer to other well-known precedents when animals aroused more sympathy than humans. For example, in 2015 in the UK launched two variations of the same PSA: “Would you give £5 to save Harrison from a long and painful death?” The first banner featured a picture of eight-year-old Harrison Smith suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and the other showed a dog. The second image received twice as many clicks.

Sociologists also cite as an example historythat happened a year earlier. Then Internet users raised money for the services of lawyers to save a pit bull that crippled a four-year-old child from Arizona from being put to sleep. A couple of weeks later, the Facebook* page dedicated to protecting the dog got 40,000 likes, as opposed to the 500 likes on the boy’s support page.

Why is this happening

Specialist in the field anthrozoology and the prevention of animal abuse by Aryan Matamonas, commenting the above cases, noted a different approach to the coverage of these events. In her opinion, in the media, the emphasis is more often on the perpetrators of the crime, and not on the personal stories of the victims.

This, Aryan believes, makes us less receptive to human tragedy. It also plays a big role whether we are aware of the vulnerability and innocence of the victim. In addition, the greater the number of victims, the less a person feels compassion for them.

UCLA Sociology Chair Cathy Pinto adds to this the fact that we still believe victims (humans) are to blame for what happened to them and condemn them for it. That is, if we have no doubt that a child or an animal did not deserve violence, then in relation to adults we often believe that they themselves run into trouble. All this makes our response to animal cruelty more acute.

Why do we love animals

We really love animals – in some cases even morethan people.

A special role in this belongs to the process of breeding companion animals – pets. Better living conditions than in the wild, and many years of selection have led to the manifestation of neoteny – the preservation of childish features in appearance and character in adults. Neotenic features include floppy ears, large eyes, a rounded forehead, playfulness, and less aggressiveness.

Empathy for animals
Comparison of gray wolf and chihuahua skulls. Photo: Dmccabe / Wikimedia Commons

However, one of the theories claimsthat neoteny played a significant role in the evolution of man as a biological species. Therefore, pets awaken in us the same maternal and paternal feelings as children. This has been confirmed, for example, MRI studies.

Also a big impact on our attachment to pets renders their pattern of behavior. Animals are much more willing and more visual than people to demonstrate their reactions and expectations. This gives us confidence in their loyalty – although cats and dogs can behave just as friendly and affectionately with complete strangers.

Why our empathy for animals is selective

News of animal abuse spreads quickly across the web, attracting a lot of attention and generating a lot of backlash.

The high-profile story happened in 2015 in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Then there was killed Cecil the lion is the real pride and living attraction of the park. It was shot by trophy-lover, dentist Walter Palmer, who paid $50,000 to professional hunter Theo Bronkorst for the opportunity to kill the beast.

The animal was first wounded with a bow, and after 40 hours it was finished off with a gun. Then the lion’s head was cut off and skinned. There were no legal consequences for Palmer and Bronkorst, since the trophy collector had a hunting license.

Why our empathy for animals is selective
Lev Cecil in 2010. Photo: Daughter#3 / Wikimedia Commons

A little earlier, the public was alarmed news that in Danish zoos giraffes unable to reproduce are killed and fed to lions.

But these are only isolated cases. Many manifestations of everyday violence against animals remain outside of human attention: circuses, dolphinariums, childish sadism. Essentially, how thinks Kenneth Shapiro, editor of the Society and Animals magazine, we feel compassion only for pets and individual victims: a tiger killed by poachers, a whale washed ashore, and so on. And the vast mass of animals raised on meat farms, or those on which cosmetics are tested, most of us rarely empathize. All this suggests that our love and empathy for animals is selective.

What is speciesism and why does it cast doubt on our sympathy for animals?

Cathy Pinto declaresthat in society there are many complex issues about the attitude of people towards animals, on which there is still no consensus. Is it possible, without killing wild animals, to force them to perform in circuses? Is it ethical to raise animals just to eat them? Which animals can be hunted and which ones cannot, and why? Is it possible to start, give and sell pets without worrying about their future fate?

Recognition of the inequality of relations between animals and people served as the basis for the theory speciesism, or species discrimination. According to it, a person as a biological species infringes on the interests and rights of other biological species – animals and plants.

Specialists believe that there is not and should not be any superiority of man over other biological species, and they also criticize anthropocentrism – the idea that only man has free will and the ability to think and feel.

The concept of speciesism appeared in the 1970s in the writings of Peter Singer and Richard Ryder, who criticized anthropocentrism. They argue that the principle of equality should apply not only to people, but to all living beings. And accordingly, only people have rights equates speciesism, according to its supporters, to racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

The manifestations of such oppression are speciesists consider animal experiments, industrial animal husbandry and slaughter, sadistic sports (for example, bullfighting or rodeo), the extraction of fur and animal skin.

Speciesism, despite being criticized from both scientific and philosophical positions, poses an important question to humanity: “Why do we treat dogs with love and sympathy, for example, but do not have similar feelings for the cows we eat? What is the fundamental difference between them?

Animal empathy and speciesism
Photo: Whoistheroach / Wikimedia Commons

What is our attitude towards animals really?

To say that the suffering of animals worries us more than human suffering is wrong, thinks Kenneth Shapiro.

An example is the case of millions of Danish minks, destroyed recently. Are they to blame for contracting the coronavirus? No. But what does it matter if they were supposed to be put on fur anyway? This whole story would not have received such publicity if they had simply continued to be systematically used for fur coats and hats. If you look at the situation as a whole, then there is no need to talk about more compassion for animals than for people.

And regardless of our attitude towards animals, we still do not have a convincing answer to the question: “Why are we so significantly different from them?” After all, the realization that animals are also sentient beings and that they can experience suffering makes us more human ourselves.