Feeling Their Pain: Humans Do Empathize With Farmed Animals
Empathy shapes the way we care for each other. It also affects how we care for animals. When we empathize with another person or animal, we feel their perceived emotional state. People often express concern about farmed animal welfare — however, these concerns are typically self-reported and thus difficult to confirm. Facial expressions can be a quantifiable alternative to self-reports of emotional response, because expressions can be measured and are less subject to social desirability bias. Since they are under autonomic control, they are also more difficult to fake.
When a person sees somebody else in pain, their facial expression typically indicates empathy. Researchers in this study wanted to see if the same would be true if people viewed animals in pain, and to do so, they recruited a convenience sample of 30 undergraduate students. Prior to the experiment, participants were assessed for empathy using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). For the test condition, each student was shown 10 YouTube video clips with the sound off. The clips depicted common painful procedures performed on farmed animals such as disbudding (horn bud removal), castration, and tail docking. Five of the clips showed cows, and five showed piglets. For each animal, three portrayed painful procedures, and two were neutral control videos.
After viewing each clip, the students rated the intensity of any of five negative emotions: pain, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. While they were viewing the videos, their faces were recorded. Two trained observers then scored the participants’ facial expressions for emotional intensity. Inter-observer agreement scores were then correlated for statistical analysis.
The results confirmed that human facial expressions reliably conveyed empathy towards farmed animals undergoing painful procedures. 29 of the 30 students showed more intense facial expressions while viewing the painful procedures than the control procedures. Species, whether cow or pig, didn’t matter. Neither did gender or diet. All 30 students self-reported increased negative emotions while watching the painful videos. Self-reports also showed a stronger response to cow versus pig videos, and self-reports of emotional responses positively correlated with subjects’ facial expressions.
These results are good news for advocates in a couple of ways. First, they document an autonomic human response to animal suffering: people do indeed empathize with farm animals when they see them in pain, and this reaction seems to be involuntary. Second, this study offers a simple way for advocates to gauge the effectiveness of video materials designed to influence the treatment of farmed animals. Observing the facial expressions of those watching the videos may provide reliable feedback on whether the video creates the intended effect. This is yet another tool in our toolkit of ways we can help to end farmed animal suffering.