“Would You Rather” is an extremely fun game to play with family and friends, especially when it is done spontaneously. You’ll probably be surprised to hear that scientists enjoy playing this game too, covering a variety of topics.
Well, all right, science tends to be more complicated than proposing a “this or that” question, but the principle is the same. A study by Jack Levin, Arnold Arluke, and Leslie Irvine asked 240 students to read a fictional news story, whereby law enforcement was called to investigate a savage beating, but no arrests were made. Each student received a different fictional story at random, whereby the only difference is the victim: an infant, a puppy, an adult dog, or an adult human. Afterward, they were asked to indicate the level of empathy towards the victim.
Bored Panda reached out to Arnold Arluke, one of the professors who worked on the study. Arluke is a Senior Scholar at the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, author of 13 books and over 100 articles covering a variety of topics, including human-animal relationships and animal ethics.
A study was conducted on people’s empathy towards humans vs. animals in Northeastern University
Image credits: Jordan Koons / Unsplash
The study aims to identify the level to which respondents are emotionally disturbed by reports of human and animal suffering and abuse. The idea came from the popular view that the media seems to evoke greater emotional reactions and draw more attention from the public with stories that involve animal victims rather than human victims.
Levin et. al. illustrated this with Harrison’s Fund, a Duchenne muscular dystrophy support charity. They ran a fundraiser and used two versions of the same ad. Both of them had the caption “Would you give 5 pounds to save Harrison from a slow, painful death?” However, the featured image was different: one was of an eight-year-old with Duchenne, while the other was a stock photo of a dog. The dog version ended up attracting twice as many clicks compared to the version with the boy.
Image credits: Bernt Sønvisen
Though there were similar studies done on the issue of empathy towards humans vs. animals, many of them ended up being inconclusive due to how the nature of empathy is viewed. This eventually lead to further research that supports the idea of two kinds of empathy—these share certain components, as opposed to a single emotional mechanism.
Other studies concluded that pet ownership leads to higher human-human empathy scores in contrast to those of human-animal. However, there was an exception: if a respondent has a higher level of attachment with a companion animal, this strongly affects their emotional response on behalf of the creature.
240 students were asked to respond to a fake article, the victims of which were randomized
Image credits: Russell Trow
The age range of the study sample was comparatively narrow, namely 18-23 year-old students. However, Prof. Arluke explained that there is already a body of research available that allows to speculate similar results for older age ranges: “Longitudinal analyses show no age-related decline in empathy, so the results should be about the same.”
The current study gives a number of insights, the main one being the idea that the victim’s age was a key factor in triggering empathy. Respondents were the least empathic to the adult human victim, while infants received the most empathy. Puppies and adult dogs came in between the two human options, leaning much more towards infant rather than adult human scores.
Gender also played a role in how respondents reacted. Female participants ended up much more likely to be empathetic than males, which is consistent with previous studies where females experience more distress than males in matters of victimization.
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Scientists suggest that the high empathy score for infants is because respondents view infants as similar to themselves, of their own kind. This idea connects to their second explanation that both infants and dogs are vulnerable, thus bringing human-animal empathy scores closer to those of the infant. However, neither of these explanations are confirmed in the current study.
When asked if there could be other possible reasons, such as societal or cultural norms, Prof. Arluke said: “Perceived similarity and vulnerability are themselves normative to a degree.”
So, there we have it, ladies and gents—it’s official. Science has proven that people are more empathetic towards dogs than they are with humans and would thus be more likely to win in the “Would You Rather” hypothetical. Well, adult humans. Babies still triumph, though.
It’s official—science says people are more empathetic towards dogs than they are with human adults
Image credits: KerriRae