Empathy for Animals: A Win-Win Approach

In a world where empathy is often perceived as a limited resource, the question of how we extend our compassion to non-human animals becomes increasingly pertinent. The article “Empathy for Animals: A Win-Win Approach” delves into this issue, exploring the psychological foundations of our empathetic responses towards animals. Authored by Mona Zahir and based on a study led by Cameron, D., Lengieza, M.L., et al., this piece, published in *The Journal of Social Psychology*, challenges the prevailing notion that empathy must be rationed between humans and animals.

The research underscores a pivotal insight: humans are more inclined to show empathy towards animals when it is not framed as a zero-sum choice between animals and humans. Through a series of experiments, the study examines how people engage in empathy when the perceived costs and benefits are altered. The findings reveal that while people generally prefer to empathize with humans over animals, this preference diminishes when empathy is not presented as a competitive choice.

By investigating the cognitive costs associated with empathetic tasks and the conditions under which people choose to empathize with animals, the study offers a nuanced understanding of empathy as a flexible, rather than fixed, human trait. This article not only illuminates the complexities of human empathy but also opens the door to fostering greater compassion for all living beings.
In a world where⁢ empathy is often seen as a ‍finite⁣ resource, the question ‌of how we extend our compassion to non-human⁣ animals becomes increasingly relevant. The ⁤article “Empathy for Animals: ⁢It’s Not a Zero-Sum Game” delves into this very issue,‌ exploring the psychological underpinnings of our ​empathetic responses towards animals. Authored by⁣ Mona Zahir and based ​on a study led by Cameron, D., Lengieza, M.L., et ‍al., this piece, ⁢published in *The‌ Journal of Social Psychology*, challenges the notion that‌ empathy must be rationed between humans and animals.

The research⁢ highlights ⁢a ‌critical insight: humans‌ are more inclined to⁢ show empathy towards‍ animals ⁣when⁤ it ‍is not framed as a zero-sum choice between animals and humans.‍ Through⁣ a series of experiments, the study examines how people⁤ engage in empathy ‍when the perceived costs and benefits are altered. The ‍findings reveal that while⁤ people ⁤generally prefer to empathize with humans over animals, this preference diminishes when empathy is not presented‌ as a competitive choice.

By investigating the cognitive costs associated with​ empathetic tasks and the conditions under which people choose to empathize with ‌animals, the study offers a nuanced‍ understanding ‌of empathy as a flexible, rather‍ than fixed, human trait. This article ⁤not only ⁢sheds light on the complexities of human empathy but ‌also opens the⁤ door to fostering greater compassion for all living beings.

Summary By: Mona Zahir | Original Study By: Cameron, D., Lengieza, M.L., et al. (2022) | Published: May 24, 2024

In a psychological experiment, researchers show that humans are more willing to show empathy towards animals if it is not presented as a zero-sum choice.

Empathy can be thought of as a decision to share in the experiences of another being, based on perceived costs and benefits. People choose to avoid being empathetic if the costs — whether material or mental — seem to outweigh the benefits. Past studies have found that, when presented with hypothetical scenarios, people usually choose to empathize with and save the lives of humans over animals. However, adults’ brain activity and physiological indicators of empathy show similar activation when seeing pictures of animals in pain as they do when seeing pictures of humans in pain. This article, published in The Journal of Social Psychology, sought to examine when people engage in the experience-sharing form of empathy with animals and humans.

The authors predicted that by not framing empathy as a choice between animals against humans, i.e. not making it a zero-sum choice, people would be more willing to empathize with animals than they normally would. They designed two studies to test their hypothesis. Both studies involved the following two types of tasks: “Feel” tasks, in which participants were shown a picture of either a human or animal and were asked to actively try to feel the internal emotions of that human or animal. And “Describe” tasks, in which participants were shown a picture of either a human or an animal and were asked to notice objective details about the external appearance of that human or animal. In both types of tasks, participants were asked to write down three keywords to demonstrate engagement with the task (either three words about the emotions they tried to empathize with in the “Feel” tasks, or three words about the physical details they noticed within the “Describe” tasks). The pictures of humans included male and female faces, whereas the pictures of animals were all of koalas. Koalas were chosen as a neutral representation of animals because they are not commonly viewed as either food or pets.

In the first study, approximately 200 participants each faced 20  trials of the “Feel” task as well as 20 trials of the “Describe” task. For each trial of each task, participants chose whether they wanted to do the task with a picture of a human or with a picture of a koala. At the end of the trials, participants were also asked to rate the “cognitive cost”, meaning the perceived mental cost, of each task. For example, they were asked how mentally demanding or frustrating the task was to complete.

The results of the first study showed that participants tend to pick humans over animals both for the “Feel” task and for the “Describe” task. In the “Feel” tasks, the average proportion of trials in which participants chose koalas over humans was 33%. In the “Describe” tasks, the average proportion of trials in which participants chose koalas over humans was 28%. In summary, for both types of tasks, participants preferred to do the task with pictures of humans rather than koalas. Additionally, participants rated the “cognitive cost” of both types of tasks as higher when they chose pictures of koalas compared to when they chose pictures of humans.

In the second study, rather than choosing between humans and koalas for each type of task, a new set of participants each faced 18 trials with human pictures and 18 trials with koala pictures. For each trial, participants had to choose between doing the “Feel” task or the “Describe” task with the picture that was given to them. Unlike the first study, the choice was no longer between human or animal, but rather between empathy (“Feel”) or objective description (“Describe”) for a predetermined picture.

The results of the second study showed that participants generally did not have a significant preference for the “Feel” task versus the “Describe” task when it came to the 18 koala trials, with the choice for either coming in around 50%. For the 18 human trials, however, participants chose the “Feel” task approximately 42% of the time, showing a preference for objective description instead. Similarly, while participants rated the relative “cognitive costs” of the “Feel” task as higher than the “Describe” task in both the human and koala trials, this higher cost of empathy was even more pronounced in the human case compared to the koala case.

An additional experimental manipulation was added to the second study: half of participants were told that they would “be asked to report how much money you would be willing to donate to help.” The purpose of this was to compare whether changing the financial cost of empathizing with humans and/or animals would have an impact. However, this manipulation did not produce significant changes in participants’ choices.

Taken together, the results of these two studies provide support the idea that people are more willing to empathize with animals when it is not presented as mutually exclusive with choosing to empathize with humans. In the words of the study authors, “removing zero-sum presentation made empathy for animals seem easier and people opted to choose it more.” The authors suggest that choosing animals over people in a zero-sum choice may feel too costly because it goes against social norms — presenting the choices separately actually lowers the cognitive cost of empathizing with animals below the baseline of empathizing with humans. Researchers can build on these ideas by investigating how empathizing with animals is affected by further increasing or decreasing the perceived competition between human and animals, and how the choice of a different animal representative affects behavior.

The results suggest that animal advocacy organizations, whether nonprofit charities or even student clubs on college campuses, should reject zero-sum depictions of animal rights as contrasting with human rights. They may choose to build campaigns that show the many ways in which empathizing with animals is complementary to empathizing with humans, e.g. when discussing matters of preserving Earth’s natural habitats. They may also benefit from more internal discussions about how to consider the cognitive costs of empathy when designing their campaigns, and brainstorm ways to reduce that cost by creating easier, less costly opportunities for the public to engage in empathy for animals.

Notice: This content was initially published on Faunalytics.org and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Humane Foundation.

Rate this post

Related Posts