Source: Dean Wissing photo, Creative Content License CC0
Are people more likely to be disturbed by the pain and suffering of a dog or would they be more distressed by that same pain or suffering when it has been inflicted on a human?
It would seem that when we present this question in a simple straightforward format like this, requiring just a logical moral decision, the vast majority of people believe that we will be bothered more by the human’s suffering then by the pain felt by the animal. However the surprising psychological fact is that when we present the same question in a real world scenario things change. Now the number of people who will empathize more with the dog is quite substantial. For example in one study people were faced with a dilemma in which they could either save a human being or their pet dog (but not both) from being hit and killed by a bus. Under some circumstances more than one third of the people surveyed chose to save their pet dog, leaving the human being to his cruel fate (click here for more about that). What psychologists (and philosophers who study morality) want to know is why people would make such a choice and under what circumstances.
The most recent attempt to look at this question comes from Northeastern University in Boston and was published in the journal Society & Animals. The research team was headed by sociology and criminology professor Jack Levin. These investigators thought that they might have the answer, and that it might not really be a simple comparison of how much empathy we have for dogs versus humans when both are in distress.
Their study involved giving each of a sample of 256 college students one of four fake newspaper reports. The articles described an attack “with a baseball bat by an unknown assailant.” It then continued the description by noting “Arriving on the scene a few minutes after the attack, a police officer found the victim with one broken leg, multiple lacerations, and unconscious.” The only way that each of these “news reports” differed was in its description of who the victim was. The victim could be one of two humans, either a one-year-old infant or alternatively a 30-year-old adult. The victim could also be one of two dogs, either a puppy or a six-year-old adult dog.
After reading the article each participant answered a set of questions which measured their empathy toward the victim and the degree to which this criminal act evoked an distressing emotional response in them.
The results showed that the levels of upsetting emotion that resulted when the victim was the baby, the puppy, or the adult dog were roughly equivalent. The adult human victim was empathized with, but to a significantly lesser degree. In addition, female participants were significantly more empathetic toward all victims, regardless of species.
Levin summarizes the findings by saying “Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and the species of victims, with age being the more important component. The fact that adult crime victims receive less empathy then do child, puppy, and full-grown dog victims suggests that adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids.”
The idea seems to be that humans respond to dogs in much the same way that they respond to human children. This makes sense in light of previous research in which human mothers were subjected to MRI scans of their brain while they looked at pictures of their own children, other children, their own dog, or an unfamiliar dog. In that research it was found that the brains of the mothers tended to respond in a similar manner to both dogs and kids. This clearly supports the idea that as far as our brains are concerned, dogs and children are equally lovable (click here for more about that study).
Levin acknowledges this by saying “We were surprised by the interaction of age and species. Age seems to trump species, when it comes to eliciting empathy. In addition it appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves while full-grown dogs are just seen as larger puppies.” In other words we are more likely to feel empathy for a victim if we consider them to be helpless and unable to look after themselves, much like an infant or toddler — and we view dogs in the same way, namely ultimately defenseless and requiring assistance.
The global conclusion that the researchers reached was that, “Subjects did not view their at dogs as animals, but rather as ‘fur babies”, or family members alongside human children.”
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