Do People Care About Dogs More Than Humans?

Which would upset you more: Reading a news story about a badly beaten adult or one about a badly beaten puppy?

If you’re like the majority of 256 undergraduate students at Boston’s Northeastern University who did this in a study, you’d have stronger feelings about the puppy.

Each of the students read a fake news article about an assailant who attacked the victim with a baseball bat, breaking one of their legs and knocking them unconscious. The victim in each story alternated between a puppy, a 6-year-old dog, a 1-year-old child and a 30-year-old adult. The students were then asked questions that assessed how much empathy they felt toward the victim they’d read about.

Sociology professors Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke figured the age of the victims would have the most impact on the students’ empathy, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Empathy levels for the puppy, adult dog and young child were about the same, while the level for the adult human was lower.

Why? For one thing, Levin and Arluke wrote, “Subjects did not view their dogs as animals, but rather as ‘fur babies,’ or family members alongside human children.”

The other reason why the dogs and baby may have elicited more empathy is because they are more helpless than the adult victim. While adult humans could possibly remove themselves from abusive situations, a dog or young child would be less able to do so. It “appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves while full grown dogs are just seen as larger puppies,” Levin said.

Levin and Arluke conducted the experiment in 2013, but it’s been getting a lot of media attention after the study was published recently in the journal Society and Animals. For several years, the professors have been studying the relationship between animal cruelty and human violence. “Many people seem to be more sympathetic to animal victims than they are to humans, so we decided to develop an experiment where we tested the idea,” Levin told Boston Magazine in 2013.

In a similar empathy-testing experiment in the UK two years ago, Harrison’s Fund, a medical research charity, printed two advertisements. Each said, “Would you give £5 to save Harrison from a slow, painful death?” But in one ad, Harrison was a dog; in the other, he was a boy – Harrison Smith, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Guess which advertisement got a significantly bigger response? That’s right, it was Harrison the dog.

Alex Smith, Harrison’s dad and the CEO of Harrison’s Fund, was inspired to use a photo of a dog after the Manchester Dogs Home received over $1.5 million in donations within a week after the shelter burned in a fire. “I really wondered why anyone would suddenly donate to a dog’s home when children are dying,” he said.

Whether we feel more empathy toward dogs or people is based on our perceptions of them, according to clinical psychologist Scott Wilson. “We can only feel empathy when we can imagine another’s internal state, and there are many reasons why we might or might not be able to do that,” he told NBC News.

Hey, what about cats? Levin believes the results of his study would have been similar if the crime victim in the fake news story was a kitten or adult cat. “Dogs and cats are family pets,” he said. “These are animals to which many individuals attribute human characteristics.”

Photo credit: YamaBSM

107 comments

Virginia Abreu de Paula

“I really wondered why anyone would suddenly donate to a dog’s home when children are dying,” he said. It is called false dilemma. We can care for children and dogs just the same. Silly article.

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Kathryn I
Kathryn I28 days ago

This person most definitely does! Dogs love unconditionally, and are loyal, which is more than I can say for my own family members. Thanks for sharing.

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Marty P
Marty Pabout a month ago

Have never met a cat or dog that I didn't like but can't say the same about humans.

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Winn A
Winn Adamsabout a month ago

sometimes . . . . . .

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Son Y.
Son Y.about a month ago

I find that very sad.

Caring for animals is easy. You can make yourself feel good by saying "This behavior means they love me," and it's not like they can exactly confirm or deny it. If they have bad behavior, you can say, "Oh, they were just not raised right," and there is patience and compassion to help them overcome it.

Then we are surprised by the way people behave when marketing, advertising, and much of society raises humans to selfish and bad behavior? We need more of the same compassion and love to patiently help each other, too.

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Dabout a month ago

Thank you so very much.

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Dabout a month ago

Thank you so very much.

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Veronica Danie
Veronica Dabout a month ago

Thank you so very much.

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sandy Gardner
sandy Gardnerabout a month ago

I love my dog more than most people because my dog has never tried to do evil, stupid, or ignorant things to other people or me. The dog is the ultimate love machine. Anyone looking for Love? Get a shelter dog!

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Sharon B
Sharon Babout a month ago

Thank you for sharing

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