People have incredibly illogical and inconsistent biases about different animals in general, but at the same time, even vegetarians generally agree with non-vegetarians
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How do people think about the human relationship with animals? Is it ethical to use them for work or for pleasure or for companionship? … to keep them in captivity? … to eat them? Why do we love some animals as companions, but hunt and kill others, or raise others in tiny enclosures so people can eat their bodies or wear their skins? These are just a few of the many questions that the newly emerging discipline, anthrozoology, explores. This is an interdisciplinary field that overlaps with a dozen or so other scholarly fields, ranging from psychology and law to history and philosophy. The main focus of anthrozoology is examining how human ideas of morality and human consumption patterns shape the interactions between humans and animals. For example, a person may believe that killing animals for fur or consuming foie gras are forms of torture but they still might go fishing or support vivisection research for medical purposes.
Where do we draw the line — and why?
To better understand the nuances of our complicated relationship with animals, a team of researchers based at James Cook University, Singapore and James Cook University, Australia designed an online questionnaire to survey people’s perceptions of 16 familiar animals including tigers, dolphins, dogs, horses, orangutans, cows, pigs, chickens, lambs, tuna, prawns, octopus, alligators, rabbits, sharks, and frogs. The surveys were based on the Stereotype Content Model (SCM), a controversial social psychology proposal that we judge people on two main dimensions: warmth (pleasant, nice, likable, good-natured) and competence (competent, intelligent, capable, dynamic, active), and that these judgments drive our behavior toward others. This model was adapted to the 16 listed animals so they could be rated using a 5-point scale (1 = not at all, 5 = very much), and four groupings emerged — ‘Love’, ‘Save’, ‘Indifferent’ and ‘Dislike’ — indicating how the participants felt towards these species.
Survey participants were recruited from three sources: 42 were members of the Vegetarian Society of Singapore, 76 were members of the Animals Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) of Singapore, and 205 were students enrolled at a private university in Singapore. The average age of the survey participants was 26 years old, and they included a variety of ethnicities and held varying religious views.
After analyzing an ethics questionnaire filled out by the participants, the researchers identified vegetarians and activists as ‘absolutists’, where things are either right or wrong, regardless of context, whilst individuals who were neither vegetarians nor animal activists were determined to be in the ‘neutral’ group.
“Participants rated the 16 nonhuman animal species significantly differently on dimensions of warmth and competence”, said the study lead author, psychologist Paul Patinadan, who conducted this study as part of his dissertation work at James Cook University, Australia, and who now is with the National Healthcare Group, Singapore.
Surprisingly, both groups held almost identical perceptions of the survey animals. To highlight just how similar these ratings were between absolutists and neutral groups of people, the researchers grouped the 16 animals into four clusters based on the survey results (Figure 1).
For example, the survey participants all felt warmth about dogs, horses and orangutans but not for alligators, octopuses, tuna, frogs and prawns. According to the survey participants, animals worth saving were tiger, shark and dolphin (for their power and competence), whereas rabbit, cow, and lamb were deemed rather incompetent and not very lovable.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that people in both the absolutist and neutral groups agreed that so-called ‘food animals’ are less sentient than pets and thus, were ‘devoid of rights’ and less deserving of moral concern. Curiously, these people viewed pigs, which are more intelligent than dogs, as ‘not very lovable’ — probably because the participants were either inordinately fond of eating bacon or because they were disgusted that pigs are ‘dirty’ animals. Less surprising was that sharks were generally disliked by all the study participants even though sharks kill far fewer people each year than do cows, but at the same time, few survey participants viewed cows as anything other than food.
Chickens were the one surprise in this study: vegetarians and animal activists felt more warmth towards chickens than did university students.
Why bother understanding people’s views of animals?
“Understanding the place of our own moral judgments amongst nonhuman animals might help to finally define the nature of human interaction with the beings that share our world with us”, Dr Patinadan stated.
Using the controversial SCM approach in this pilot study did reveal distinct groups of animals, with each group reflecting a specific prejudicial perception. But the most interesting finding is that morally heterogeneous groups of people such as vegetarians, animal activists and university students tend to hold similar stereotypes about the variety of animals included in this study.
This was a pilot study so it had several sampling problems, including the prevalence of women and young people. Another problem was the location: despite the participants’ diversity in ideological views, they were all from a small area in Southeast Asia. It is likely that people’s perceptions of animals vary between cultures, so the researchers are now looking to conduct a similar study amongst Westerners to identify similarities and differences in their perceptions of various animals within their own distinct cultural contexts.
“People’s ethical ideologies about nonhuman animals do not seem to affect the social permutations they grant to the different species,” Dr Patinadan said in a statement. “The current findings suggest that general human feelings about nonhuman animals might be sourced from mental shortcuts of adaptive social value judgements and permutations.”
These mental shortcuts revealed that many people assign different, often contradictory, values to different animals in order to justify their like or dislike for them. This may explain why we care for some species whilst hurting or killing others. This study highlighted our astonishing ability to blatantly ignore moral inconsistencies in how we perceive and feel about the animals that share our planet. At the same time, it is useful to point out that the way the participants felt towards certain species was independent from their own ethical or moral standpoint on them — well, up to a point: these ‘mental shortcuts’ can also have profound effects on which animals we choose to conserve.
“In a choice to donate to save the tiger or an even more endangered water beetle, people may, in general, gravitate their charity towards the majesty of a big cat.”
Paul V. Patinadan and Denise B. Dillon (2022). Friends, food or worth fighting for? A proposed stereotype content model for nonhuman animals, Human–Animal Interactions | doi:10.1079/hai.2022.0023
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