Does Our Personality Predict Our Compassion?
Some scholars have found that our attitudes toward animals may be linked to personality traits. For example, compassion for animals is common among people who are agreeable and live in harmony with others. Similar associations have been found with tender-mindedness, femininity, and strong beliefs in equality. Meanwhile speciesism, or the belief that humans are superior to nonhuman animals, has been linked to authoritarian traits.
While previous researchers have dabbled in the idea of linking personality and compassion toward animals, the evidence is still limited. For example, most scholars have used broad, simplistic personality measures without considering individual differences. The goal of this study was to extend existing research by assessing peoples’ compassion for animals in the context of a more comprehensive personality model.
The authors used the Big Five model as a springboard. This model categorizes personality within five broad categories: neuroticism, defined by sadness, stress, and emotional instability; agreeableness, characterized by prosocial traits such as empathy, trust, and altruism; conscientiousness, or thoughtfulness and impulse control; extraversion, defined as expressiveness, assertiveness, and general “outgoing” behavior; and openness to experience. Research suggests that agreeableness and openness are most closely linked to pro-animal attitudes.
Instead of taking the Big Five at face value, the authors broke them down into more specific characteristics. For example, they considered “withdrawal” and “volatility” as aspects of neuroticism, and “politeness” and “compassion” as dimensions of agreeableness. In addition, they looked at “extremes” of the Big Five, such as antagonism (defined as someone low on agreeableness) and detachment (defined as someone low on extraversion). Finally, they considered social values and problems, measured by the degree to which certain types of interactions are important to people, and the difficulties people experience when interacting with others.
A nationally representative sample of 992 U.S. adults completed their online survey. The survey measured both the personality dimensions described above and compassion for animals, using scales that looked at general attitudes toward animals, solidarity with animals, similarity to animals, and speciesism.
Based on prior research, the authors made the following predictions:
- Out of the Big Five traits, high levels of agreeableness would be most closely tied to compassion for animals.
- The compassionate aspect of agreeableness would have a stronger association with compassion for animals than politeness.
- Maladaptive antagonism (defined as low agreeableness) would have a stronger link with compassion for animals than standard levels of agreeableness. Specifically, the authors expected antagonism to be strongly associated with anti-animal attitudes.
The results supported the prediction that compassion for animals is most closely connected to agreeableness in the Big Five model. As the authors guessed, this was largely driven by the “compassionate” aspect of the trait, rather than politeness. However, openness to experience had an equally strong association with compassion toward animals, which was driven by curiosity. Contrary to the authors’ predictions, maladaptive antagonism was not more strongly related to compassion for animals than average levels of agreeableness.
After doing some exploratory analysis, the authors noticed a few additional findings. First, neuroticism was related to positive attitudes toward animals and speciesism, which was largely a result of the “withdrawal” aspect of the trait. In other words, people who feel more withdrawn may display more positive attitudes toward animals. In contrast, people who show dominance in their interpersonal interactions were less likely to be compassionate to animals. Finally, the “enthusiasm” aspect of the Big Five trait extraversion was associated with feelings of similarity to, and solidarity with, animals. In other words, people who experience more positive emotions may feel a stronger affinity with animals.
Overall, the results suggest that people who are more cooperative, agreeable, and open to experience tend to extend these characteristics to animals. While this finding confirms previous research, other insights from this paper suggest new ways of looking at personality and attitudes toward animals.
The results provide a foundation for future research, but they may also inform animal advocates. When targeting members of the public for campaigns and pro-animal actions, it may help to understand more about personality traits and the types of appeals that are effective for those who are agreeable, open to experience, and generally withdrawn.