Do Animal Self-Identities Shape Concern for Animal Rights?
Think back to your days in school, be it high school or earlier. Was your school team represented by the mascot? If so, odds are that this mascot was some type of animal donning clothes and walking around on two legs. They might have even been able to talk. These mascots are an example of anthropomorphism, or the assignment of human characteristics to nonhumans including objects, plants, and animals.
As humans, we tend to treat those we identify as being more similar to us better. If we incorporate a human element into our perception of an animal, social identity theory says we will care more about their wellbeing. In turn, researchers have started to wonder if the inverse is true: if a human incorporates nonhuman elements into their own self-concept, are they more likely to be concerned with the well-being of nonhumans?
There are two groups who indeed identify with nonhuman animals: furries and therians. Furries are a group of people who enjoy media featuring anthropomorphized animals and have created communities centered around that. Many furries have fursonas, or personalized avatars that represent oneself – usually as an anthropomorphized nonhuman. On the other hand, therians identify as nonhuman animals in a metaphysical way and don’t necessarily enjoy anthropomorphic media. One of these individuals, for example, might identify as feeling like they have a cat soul but are trapped in a human body. Therians identify more closely with specific species than with anthropomorphized animals in general.
The potential overlap in these two groups is clear, but in this study, the authors sought to see how these two groups’ identification with nonhumans manifested in their moral concern for animals’ rights and wellbeing. They embarked on a series of three studies to try and come up with an answer.
The first study was held at a furry convention in Texas. For this one, the authors tested the validity of three hypotheses: first, therians would identify with nonhumans more than non-therian furries would. Second, therians would show at least as much concern for animal rights as non-therian furries. Third, therians’ concern for animal rights would be driven by how much they self-identify with nonhumans. 224 convention attendees were surveyed and all three hypotheses were supported. It was clear that a therian identify significantly contributed to one’s concern for animal rights, with stronger self-identification leading to a stronger concern.
The authors wanted to drill down more and look into explicit versus implicit identifications. While explicit attitudes influence our controlled behaviors, implicit attitudes are more subtle and influence our automatic, subconscious behaviors. They traveled to another furry convention and recruited 206 participants to partake in their survey.
This time, the authors hypothesized that therians would be more likely to explicitly identify with nonhumans and support animal rights, and that therians were also more likely to implicitly identify with nonhumans and, in-turn, be interested in animal rights groups. Finally, they hypothesized that explicit identification with nonhuman animals would be a stronger predictor of animal rights support than implicit identification.
As hypothesized, therians were more likely to identify with nonhumans both explicitly and implicitly. The difference between the two groups came down to their support for animal rights: while explicit identification was a strong predictor of animal rights support, implicit identification was not. This second study also replicated results from the first study, with data showing that the degree to which one identifies with nonhumans influences their support for animal rights.
Armed with the data that explicit identification with nonhumans can predict support for animal rights, the authors moved on to apply their studies to a group that was not made up of furries or therians. To test the relationship between self-identification with nonhumans and support for animal rights in a general population, they recruited 182 undergraduate students at a university.
Instead of asking if the participants identified as therians, the authors inquired about the extent to which their mental self-representations took on a nonhuman animal form. The participants were also questioned on their interest in animal rights and corresponding organizations. Afterwards, participants were given the opportunity to provide their email address to be passed on to an animal rights group for future engagement.
The resulting data shows a notable relationship between having a mental self-representation that’s nonhuman and being interested in animal rights as well as animal rights groups. Having a higher interest in animal rights was a strong predictor in actually providing one’s email to be given to an animal rights group. So, even in a general population that didn’t have specific interest in anthropomorphic animals, identifying with animals (through mental self-representations) was a strong predictor in whether people were interested in animal rights.
What use is this information to animal rights advocates? Apart from the fact that furries make up an increasingly popular subculture covered in mainstream media such as CNN, there are a couple of takeaways that are applicable to raising awareness and engagement with animal rights issues more broadly. Instead of asking people to see nonhuman animals as humans, the data presented here suggests it may be more effective to get people to encompass nonhuman animals into their self-identities. The use of inclusive words such as “we” can help drive this association. If someone feels like part of their identity is that of a nonhuman animal, they are, according to this set of studies, more likely to feel concern for animal rights.