Foreground And Background: Images Of Farmed Animals And Perception
Studies have shown that the background of an image impacts our perception of the subject. If we see an image of an animal in the wild, for example, we draw more positive associations than if we see that same animal in a zoo. But is the same true of farmed animals?
To answer this question, researchers asked members of the public to assess four photoshopped images. The images were created by combining two different farm settings (backgrounds) and two different pigs, who were the subjects of the photographs. One setting showed a pen strewn with straw, and the other showed a pen with a slatted floor; one of the pigs looks happy, and the other looks sad. All pictures were taken by an agricultural photographer, and the pig photos were selected via a survey asking respondents to pick out the happiest- and saddest-looking pig. (Note that this does not necessarily mean that the pigs in the photos were genuinely happy or unhappy, but rather that their body language gave the impression to a human observer that they were experiencing one of these emotions.)
During the study, participants were shown a total of six images: the four photoshopped pictures, and two images of either just the background, or just the pigs. After seeing the images, participants in the study were asked to evaluate both the pig and the pen on a scale of 1-to-5 of twelve pairs of opposite words. In the case of the pig, descriptors included pairs like whether the pig seemed satisfied or unsatisfied, and brave or anxious. The pen was evaluated based on characteristics like natural or unnatural, and comfortable or uncomfortable.
The results of the study suggest that setting strongly influences our perception of farmed animals. Whether the pig looks happy or sad is also an important factor, but less so than the setting. A happy pig in a slat-floor pen looks worse off to us than an unhappy pig on straw, and irrespective of the pig’s emotional state, a slat-floor pen is always rated more poorly than one with straw. This might be because we lack confidence in reading the emotions of pigs, and therefore place more weight on his or her surroundings. That the environment is constant, but emotional states are transient, could also explain why the pen impacts our assessment more than the pig’s body language.
In addition to the content of the images, participants’ backgrounds and beliefs shaped their reaction to the pictures. Delivering a demographic questionnaire helped researchers understand what factors come into play here. They found that someone with a connection to agriculture – who grew up on a farm, for instance – was less likely to react negatively to farm settings. Believing that pigs experience emotions and are conscious also impacted how participants reacted to the images. Notably, the majority of participants believed that pigs have emotions (86%); over half (58%) thought that pigs are conscious of what happens to them; and almost half (46%) agreed that pigs can solve problems and make decisions.
Statistics like these on perceptions of the minds of pigs reflect an increasing general awareness of farmed animal intelligence. Through studies like this one, which offer insight into how we assess images of farmed animals, we can build on public engagement with farmed animal protection issues, and better communicate their plight in our advocacy.