Does Anthropomorphism Impact Individuals’ Support for Animal Rights?
For most of us, our animal companions are nothing less than best friends and family. As such, we are often confident in our abilities to correctly interpret their motivations, behaviors, and emotional states. When we attempt to explain these characteristics through the lens of similar human characteristics, we anthropomorphize animals.
Anthropomorphism can be both useful and misleading. On the one hand, we run the risk of misinterpreting animals’ behaviors and feelings. As a result, we may not respond to their needs appropriately or may expect too much from them. For example, recent research suggests that the “guilty look” that dogs show after committing a misdeed is more likely to be an expression of submission in response to his or her guardian’s angry response. The dog may not be aware of any wrongdoing, so scolding him or her after the fact is probably ineffective. On the other hand, anthropomorphism can be useful to foster empathy. When we try to imagine what another animal is going through based on our own experiences, we are more likely to care about their welfare.
The authors of this study wondered how anthropomorphizing dogs affects an individual’s support for animal rights. The research addressed two questions: 1) Are people are more likely to project human emotional states like guilt and loneliness onto dogs if they themselves are experiencing those emotions? 2) When individuals identify human-like emotions in dogs, does their support for animal rights increase?
For the first part of the study, the authors surveyed 41 people (12 men, 27 women, 2 undisclosed). They provided participants with written descriptions of dogs behaving in ways that could be indicative of guilt, loneliness, or anxiety and then asked them to identify how they thought the dog was feeling (dog behavior assessment). Participants also rated how frequently they themselves experience loneliness and anxiety, as well as their proneness for feeling guilty (personality assessments). The authors then assessed the extent to which participants anthropomorphize dogs (dog anthropomorphism assessment).
In the second part of the study, the authors recruited 155 new participants. Half of them completed the personality assessment (the authors added an assessment of empathy for this round), a new assessment of participants’ support for animal rights, and the dog anthropomorphism assessment. The other half of the participants completed these assessments plus the dog behavior assessment.
Results from both parts of the study show that guilt-prone participants more frequently identified guilt and anxiety in dogs. Results from the second part of the study show that participants who completed the dog behavior assessment were more likely to support animal rights than participants who did not complete this assessment. In addition, identification of guilt and anxiety in dogs was correlated with greater support for animal rights, and participants who anthropomorphized dogs also showed more support for animal rights. Finally, the empathy assessment in the second part of the study shows that individuals who demonstrated increased empathy towards other humans were also more likely to support animal rights.
Importantly, this study shows that individuals’ support of animal rights temporarily increases when they are confronted with situations in which dogs appear to be experiencing human-like emotions. In short, anthropomorphism increases (at least temporarily) support for animal rights. The authors point out that these findings have implications for organizations who might consider using anthropomorphism to promote animal welfare among a wide public audience through commercials, advertisements, and movies.[Contributed by Christina Skasa]