Understanding How Humans Perceive Different Animals
Non-human animals are treated in different ways within and across cultures. People’s perceptions, emotions, and attitudes towards them tend to be diverse and even paradoxical. To understand how these complexities influence how humans treat animals, this study gathered 11 relevant evaluative dimensions for how humans perceive animals, based on previous studies within the field. Then, a database of 120 open-source color animal images was constructed as a stimulus set, to see how animals were perceived by humans on these 11 subjective dimensions (using “7-point rating scales”). The study also considered the demographic differences of the sample (509 participants), including gender, age, dietary patterns (e.g., meat avoidance), living area (urban vs. rural), and companion animal guardianship. Two multiple linear regressions were conducted to predict two moral outcomes: kill for human consumption or care and protect.
The 11 evaluative dimensions considered were: “valence”, “arousal”, “familiarity”, “similarity to humans”, “dangerousness”, “cuteness”, “capacity to think”, “capacity to feel”, “edibility”, “acceptability to kill for human consumption” and “feelings of care and protection”.
One of the most relevant dimensions was “valence” defined as the inherent feeling of positivity/attractiveness or negativity/aversiveness to a stimulus. The measure “arousal” refered to the experience of emotional activation or calmness to a stimulus. “Familiarity” was described as the level of contact a person has with animals. The “similarity to humans” dimension measured the extent to which animals share characteristics in common with humans. “Dangerousness” was defined as the level of threat humans perceive from the animals. “Cuteness” refered to linking physical infantile characteristics to certain animals. “Capacity to think” refered to the animal’s capacity to think, imagine, and remember, while “capacity to feel” looked at their capacity of feeling and experiencing sensations. The “edibility” of an animal was described as the judgement of suitability for human consumption. The “acceptability to kill for human consumption” and “feelings of care and protection” measurements refered to what extent individuals were able to accept to harm and kill animals (e.g. for food, for clothing) and to what extent individuals desired to care for or protect an animal, respectively.
The images of the animals were picked considering certain criteria to reflect standardization — each image was in color and depicted a full-body animal against a white background with the head of the animal positioned to the right. More than half of the participants surveyed were women and had a degree in higher education. Ages ranged between 18 and 71 years old, and most respondents were students or employed. Most of the participants consumed animals in their diets, reported living in predominantly urban areas, and currently or in the past had a companion animal.
Overall, most animals were judged as positive, as familiar, as having the capacity to feel and as evoking feelings of care. Most animals were also perceived as low in dangerousness, edibility, capacity to think, similarity to humans, and acceptability to kill for human consumption. Ratings for cuteness showed that animals were evenly categorized across low and high ratings. For the arousal dimension, most animals received moderate arousal scores.
When considering animal categories, ratings showed significant differences. Mammals were evaluated as the most positive, arousing, familiar, cute, similar to humans, capable of thinking and feeling, and elicited the highest feelings of care and protection than any of the other animal categories. Bivalves (e.g. oysters) were rated as the most edible category and as the most acceptable to kill for human consumption. Arachnids (e.g. spiders) received the most negative rating and were considered the most dangerous animal category. Clitellates (e.g. worms) were rated as the least arousing, least familiar, least cute and with lower edibility. Bivalves were rated as the least similar to humans and least dangerous. Bivalves and clitellates were evaluated with the lowest capacity to feel. Bivalves, clitellates, gastropods (e.g. snails), insects, malacostracans (e.g. lobster) were rated with the lowest thinking capacity. Arachnids, clitellates, and bivalves elicited the lowest feelings of care and protection. Amphibians were rated as the least acceptable to kill for human consumption.
Regarding differences in participants, women evaluated animals as more familiar, more capable to feel, less edible,and less acceptable to kill for human consumption in comparison to men. Participants’ age did not influence animals’ ratings significantly. The dietary habits that ranged from omnivores, meat reducers (i.e. pescatarians and flexitarians), and meat avoiders (i.e. vegetarians or vegans) influenced animals ratings.
Animals were rated higher on valence, arousal, cuteness, similarity to humans, capacity to feel, capacity to think, feelings of care, and with lower edibility, lower dangerousness,and lower acceptability to kill by meat avoiders in comparison to meat reducers and omnivores. Meat reducers rated animals as less acceptable to kill for human consumption and displayed higher feelings of care than omnivores. Participants’ living area did not impact animal ratings much, except for the capacity to feel dimension, since more participants from urban areas attributed the capacity to feel to animals. Participants with companion animals rated animals higher in valence, arousal, cuteness, feelings of care, and capacity to feel and think, and rated them lower in dangerousness, edibility,and acceptability to kill for human consumption. Participants with companion animals during childhood evaluated animals higher in valence, arousal, cuteness, feelings of care and capacity to think.
The results of the two models showed that animals that were rated cuter, less edible,and more capable of feeling tended to be treated with greater moral concern. As such, these animals were less acceptable to kill for human consumption and elicited greater feelings of care and protection.
For animal advocates, this study shows how human perception of animals relates to moral concern. Advocates should consider using some of the evaluative dimensions (e.g. capacity to feel) that positively affect animals (by decreasing the acceptability to kill for human consumption and by increasing the feelings of care and protection) as tools for a more engaging dialogue to help people align their perceptions of animals with their actions. However, some of the general perceptions of this study negatively impact some categories of animals, which lets advocates know about the work that needs to be done to inform the general public on why these perceptions are morally concerning.