Prejudice, Social Dominance, And Right-Wing Authoritarianism: The Dark Psychology Of Speciesism
Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. […] Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case. (Singer, 1975/1990, p. 9)
Speciesism is prejudice-based discrimination by humans against non-human animals (Joy, 2005). In other words, speciesists view humans as residing at the apex of life on Earth and, as such, ”lesser” lives are suitable for human use, whether that be as food, clothing, analogs for product safety testing, sport, entertainment, subjects in scientific research, etc. (Dhont et al., 2016).
It isn’t clear from Singer’s quote above if he understood it then, but those aren’t necessarily two separate groups of people: Racist people are also likely to be speciesist, and vice versa. Indeed, there is now a small-but-growing body of research showing that people who are prejudiced toward members of other ethnic/religious/national groups are also more likely to hold anti-animal views. In this blog, I review some of that research, explain what connects these two ideologies and, lastly, address what – if anything – can be done to undermine them.
Prejudice and Speciesism
Despite a common stereotype suggesting otherwise, people who show a general deficit in empathy towards fellow humans also place a low value on the lives of animals. To have empathy for someone is to understand their emotional state and share it. Across two studies, Taylor and Signal (2005; Signal & Taylor, 2007) found that those who have relatively low empathy for other humans are also more likely to endorse sentiments such as “humans have the right to use animals as they see fit” and “the use of animals in rodeos and circuses is not cruel.”
With respect to racism more specifically, Costello and Hodson (2009) found that people who are prejudiced against immigrants – versus those who are less prejudiced – tend to believe that humans and animals are distinctly different from one another. In particular, their study demonstrated that relatively prejudiced individuals were more likely to agree with sentiments such as “humans are the only creatures who have thoughts; non-human animals cannot think too.”
Furthermore, Costello and Hodson (2014) argue that this belief in the existence of a sharp divide between humans and animals is actually a precursor to human-to-human prejudice and that this connection can appear early in human development. In support of their claims, their research uncovered evidence that the more that children – some as young as 6 – and their parents perceived humans as being different from and superior to animals, the more they dehumanized people of a different race (i.e., likened those people to animals) and, as a result, the more prejudiced their attitude toward that group.
Further attesting to the relation between racism and speciesism, Dhont and colleagues (2014) discovered that Canadians who reported a dislike for black people, native/aboriginal people, Muslim people, and other ethnic minorities were more likely than those who didn’t report such prejudicial attitudes to believe, for example, that “it is perfectly acceptable for cattle, chickens, and pigs to be raised for human consumption,” “human economic gain is more important than setting aside land for wildlife,” and “there is nothing wrong with killing animals for their fur to make clothes.” Recently, Dhont et al. (2016) broadened this research to the U.S., UK, and Belgium. Here too, participants with relatively prejudiced attitudes toward minority ethnic and religious groups were also more likely to express speciesist beliefs.
Undoubtedly, antipathy towards other groups of humans is associated with holding negative attitudes toward non-human animals as well (see also research by Hodson et al., 2014 and Amiot & Bastian, 2015). But why? And is there anything that can be done to mitigate such harmful attitudes?
Common Threads: Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism
Together, social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism form much of the basis for intergroup prejudice (Duckitt & Sibley, 2007; Sibley et al., 2006; Whitley, 1999). People who are high in social dominance orientation (SDO) seek to establish and maintain a hierarchy between the groups in a given society, as they believe such hierarchies are “both natural and desirable” (Bratt et al., 2016, p. 1617). Thus, such individuals are likely to agree with statements such as “to get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on other groups” and “some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.”
People who endorse right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) value traditionalism, they expect society members to submit to authority, and they approve of the use of aggressive tactics by authorities. As such, they tend to agree with statements such as “the only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas” and “it is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds.”
Recent research (Dhont et al., 2014, 2016) indicates that people who endorse group-based hierarchies (SDO) or the constellation of traditionalism, submission to authority, and approval of authoritarian aggression (RWA) are also more likely to hold anti-animal views. That is, underneath feelings of disregard for the suffering of animals is the belief that it is natural and right that some groups dominate others and the belief that the status quo ought to be preserved by nearly any means those in authority choose.
Dhont and Hodson (2014) offer a partial explanation for why people high in SDO or RWA are more likely to hold speciest beliefs: They feel threatened by ideologies that undermine the idea that some animals exist to become our food. Such ideologies challenge the traditionalism that SDOs and RWAs value. Specifically, they found that those who scored relatively high on SDO and RWA felt threatened by veg*ns, as indicated by their agreement with statements such as “vegetarians should have more respect for our traditional eating customs, which meat consumption is simply part of.” In turn, this threat contributed to their approval of animal exploitation and their own (higher) meat consumption. SDO (but not RWA) also leads to speciesism through its association with the belief in humans’ supposed superiority over other animals.
Figure 1. Dark Psychology of Speciesism
Undermining Dominance- and Authoritarian-Promoting Ideologies
Clearly, speciesism is intertwined with many other dark beliefs and attitudes (see Figure 1). As evidenced by recent events in the United States and Europe, it is also clear that these other attitudes are deeply held and difficult to change, despite decades of social resistance and legal progress. This may be due, in part, to the fact that a person’s level of SDO is in evidence early on in their socio-cultural development, perhaps even by 6 years of age (Costello & Hodson, 2014). And by the time someone reaches adolescence, their level of SDO is already unlikely to vary from year to year (Bratt et al., 2016).
Like SDO, RWA-related beliefs are also transmitted from one generation to the next (Duriez & Soenens, 2009), but – further – a significant part of this transmission is actually genetic (McCourt et al., 1999). Adding to all of this, research shows that both SDO and RWA are closely tied to personality, which is also genetically-determined to a significant extent (Perry & Sibley, 2012).
So where does this leave us? How can change-seekers undermine SDO and RWA and, thus, lessen the negative consequences for both humans and animals that follow from these destructive attitudes? Short of going back in time and engaging in gene-swapping, intervening in child-rearing strategies, or even conducting personality transplants, it can sometimes feel as if there isn’t room to maneuver. But that sentiment is simply too pessimistic. Seemingly-fixed attitudes and beliefs can be changed, as attested to not only by recent events across the world (e.g., legal recognition of gay marriage in the US, changing attitudes toward LGBT people in otherwise-conservative cultures, legal advancements for women in Saudi Arabia), but by a great deal of research in human psychology.
If you aren’t already familiar with the research literature addressing how to change attitudes, we recommend that you begin with this Outline Summary (PDF) describing current theories and research on attitude change. As this summary indicates, to change someone’s attitudes (or beliefs), one ought to consider:
- The purpose, extremity, basis, and strength of the original attitude
- The extent to which the original attitude has both explicit (conscious) and implicit (non-conscious) components
- Features of who is trying to change the attitude (is s/he credible, likable, similar, etc.?)
- Features of the person whose attitude is the target of change (is s/he intelligent, in the right mindset, open to having their mind changed, etc.?)
- Features of the counter-attitudinal message itself (is it high-quality, does it address “both sides,” is it easy to understand, etc.?)
With respect to SDO and RWA specifically, below we provide a small but – we hope – thought-provoking list of findings that suggest that these two ideologies can be changed directly:
- If you can persuade people that the world is becoming less dangerous (i.e., they become less likely to agree that “the social world we live in is basically a dangerous and unpredictable place”), RWA-related beliefs may decrease. Similarly, if you can persuade people that the world is getting less competitive (i.e., they become less likely to agree that “it’s a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times”), SDO-related beliefs may decrease (Sibley et al., 2007).
- Getting people to understand that genes are not the only or even main determinant of behavior can have a similarly positive result: In two studies, Dambrun and colleagues (2009) found that if university students were exposed to classes that emphasized the importance of social and environmental forces in shaping behavior, their SDO score was reduced (note: RWA was not assessed in this study).
- Research also suggests that people who are high in SDO or RWA who have positive contact with members of groups they dislike may have reduced SDO and RWA scores thereafter (Dhont & Van Hiel, 2009), especially if that contact is of high quality (Dhont, Van Hiel, & Hewstone, 2014).
- Practicing, writing about, or even being momentarily “primed” by the concept of generosity can reduce SDO scores (Brown, 2011; note: RWA was not assessed in this study).
- Rather than trying to change SDO or RWA directly, however, one might focus instead on changing the beliefs that intervene between them and speciesism (i.e., seek to influence beliefs about the human-animal divide and/or about the perceived threat of veg*nism).
- For example, Bastian and colleagues (2012) had participants in their studies read “editorials” that either compared humans to animals (e.g., “humans are motivated to avoid pain and to seek pleasure, just like animals”) or compared animals to humans (e.g., “animals are motivated to avoid pain and to seek pleasure, just like humans”). Participants in the “animals are like humans” group thereafter showed an increased moral concern for animals and reduced speciesism.
- Feygina and colleagues (2010) found that characterizing climate change concerns in terms of patriotism and status quo maintenance made pro-environmental behavior more acceptable to those who were otherwise resistant to messages about global warming. Perhaps similar message-framing around veg*nism could help reduce its apparent threat to people high in SDO and RWA and, thus, lessen their speciesism.
Despite the seeming firmness with which dominance- and authoritarian-enhancing belief systems are held, there is now evidence that they are at least somewhat pliable. To the extent that change-seekers manage to positively influence people who endorse these belief systems, then it will be to the benefit of ALL beings, human and animal alike. And that is certainly a goal worth fighting for.