How Stereotyping Affects Our Attitudes And Behavior Toward Animals
Social scientists have found that humans’ emotions toward other societal groups are affected by our perception of their warmth (how well-intentioned they seem) and of their competence (how skilled or capable they seem). This stereotyping determines, in turn, our behavior toward that group, with the warmth perception affecting our active behaviors and the competence perception influencing our passive behaviors. Through the two studies described in this paper, the authors investigate whether the same framework can be applied to human emotions and behaviors toward different animal species.
In a previous study, the authors found that species stereotyped as “companions” (high-warmth, high-competence animals, e.g., dogs and monkeys) elicited emotions of fondness and both active and passive facilitation behaviors—people indicated they would help or preserve them. “Pests” (low-warmth, low-competence animals, e.g., rats, chickens, mice, and fish) elicited contempt and both passive and active harm—that is, they’d be ignored or killed. “Prey” (moderate-warmth, low-competence animals, e.g., cows, rabbits, and pigs) generated indifference, passive harm (ignoring them), and active facilitation (protecting them). And finally, “predators” (low-warmth, high-competence animals, e.g., tigers, bears, and whales) induced awe, active harm (being hunted and killed) and passive facilitation (being managed and preserved).
In the first study for this paper, the authors sought to test how animal traits trigger certain human behaviors by presenting respondents with a fictitious animal whose level of warmth and competence they described and varied. This experiment was designed to eliminate the effect of prior knowledge and perceptions of real-life animals. The authors found that the fictitious animal elicited fondness and delight when described as friendly and intelligent, contempt and disgust when described as unfriendly and unintelligent, and threat when described as unfriendly but intelligent. There were no significant findings concerning emotions associated with an animal depicted as friendly but unintelligent. In terms of behavior, high-warmth animals prompted active facilitation behaviors, whereas low-warmth ones received active harm behaviors. High-competence animals generated passive facilitation behaviors, while low-competence animals elicited passive harm behaviors.
The second study aimed to test how scenarios involving certain human behaviors toward animals are stereotypically associated with certain species. Respondents were presented with scenarios and asked to say which species fit them.
The two active facilitation scenarios were budget allocation among different organizations that aim to support different animals, and a national long-term health campaign for animals. As expected, people typically considered these most appropriate for “companion” species, but there were promising findings for “predator”-type animals, too, leading the authors to conclude that such campaigns could benefit several species.
The active harm scenarios were biological research using animals and shooting, trapping, poisoning, euthanizing, or eliminating animals who cause problems for humans. “Pest” animals received more active harm in participants’ responses—as well as more passive harm, with scenarios including ignoring vaccine targets for animal diseases and ignoring accidental animal deaths.
The passive facilitation scenarios were sharing spaces with animals so that species could be relocated or reintroduced, and developing parks, recreation areas, and restricted areas that might help conserve a species. As expected, high-competence animals—those considered intelligent—were associated with these scenarios, but “prey” animals were ascribed more passive facilitation than expected, given their perceived low competence. Therefore, such measures may be generally applicable to most animal species.
These findings may have implications for those planning animal advocacy campaigns. For example, acknowledging stereotypes about animals could strategically guide campaigns toward focusing on warmth- or competence-related characteristics, depending on the context. Alternatively, campaigners may choose to invest resources into efforts to change people’s stereotypes of animals—for example, raising awareness of pigs’ intelligence or highlighting social, communicative traits in fish—in order to improve the effectiveness of interventions to protect them from harmful behavior.