Comparing Reactions To Human And Dog Suffering
In popular perception, media coverage of the abuse of non-human animals often appears to evoke greater public outrage than reports of abuse of human victims. Studies have indicated that people may feel more empathy for animals because they perceive them as more vulnerable than people. This paper, published in Animals & Society, adds an additional element to research on this topic by investigating whether people have more empathy for human or animal victims of abuse of varying ages.
Study participants, 240 undergraduate students at a major northeastern university, were randomly given one of four fictitious newspaper articles that described an attack perpetrated on a 1-year-old infant, 30-year-old adult, puppy, or 6-year-old dog. The authors then administered an Emotional Response Scale in which participants gave answers on a 7-point scale indicating the extent to which they felt 16 emotions towards the victims, including six emotions used to assess empathy—sympathetic, softhearted, warm, compassionate, tender, and moved.
Ratings were summarized to yield total empathetic distress scores. Results indicated that female participants were significantly more empathic than male participants, regardless of species of victim, and that participants were significantly more empathic when the victim was an infant or puppy than an adult person or dog. In a separate analysis of the interaction between age and species, the categories of infant, puppy, and adult dog all received significantly greater empathy than did the human adult victim, with the infant receiving the highest score. Additionally, the authors note that “only in comparison with the infant did the adult dog receive significantly less empathy than other victims.”
The authors summarize their findings by stating that “when confronted with hypothetical abuse, individuals report more distress over non-human rather than human victimization, unless a human child experiences the suffering.” They offer two related explanations: that the infant and puppy scored higher overall because participants saw them as highly vulnerable; and that participants expressed higher levels of empathy for an infant than a puppy because they viewed the infant as more similar to themselves, indicating that a combination of similarity and vulnerability provoked the most empathy. The authors also suggest that participants viewed the adult dog as vulnerable, a finding in line with studies indicating that people equate dogs of all ages with children, but that participants viewed the adult victim as “responsible for and capable of removing themselves from the abusive situation.”
In conclusion, the authors state that the most significant take-away from the study for policy makers seeking to prevent abuse of animals and people is the need to emphasize “shared vulnerability, rather than focusing on exposure to violence and aggression.” They further note that “because acknowledging vulnerability means acknowledging similarity as embodied beings, similarly subject to harm and pain, it can have a potential impact on a wide range of moral and legal domains related, but not limited to, interactions between humans and non-human animals.”
For advocates, the findings in the paper are likely not very surprising, as advocates have long emphasized the vulnerability of non-human animals and the ways in which non-human animals are similar to humans, particularly in their abilities to suffer and feel pain. Additionally, advocates often choose to focus on young or baby animals instead of adult animals in attempts to elicit more sympathy. Advocates should, however, take note of the author’s concluding recommendation to emphasize vulnerability over violence, which indicates that photos and descriptions depicting violence and aggression may be less influential than those focused on vulnerability and human-like qualities of animals.