You’re watching a movie. A dog and his human companions run through a battlefield, dodging gunfire and explosions. Be honest: you’re more concerned that the dog will perish, not the people, right?
For plenty of people, selfless and unconditionally loyal dogs are a little easier to love than humans. A new study demonstrates that we do indeed have more empathy for them than other adults, and the authors attempt to explain why.
Writing in the journal Society & Animals, the team – from Northeastern University Boston and the University of Colorado Boulder – found that only children elicit more of an empathetic response under certain conditions than dogs, whether they’re puppies or fully grown.
The study gathered 256 undergraduate students together and then presented them with fake news reports of attacks on either a 1-year-old baby, a 30-year-old adult, a young puppy, or a 6-year-old dog. No matter who the victim was, they were subjected to the business end of a baseball bat, and left with various high-profile wounds.
The idea was that the more vulnerable a victim was, the more empathy the subjects would show. As it turned out, the levels of empathy reported for the baby, the puppy, and the dog were on par with one another; the adult victim was empathized with, but to a lesser degree.
“In addition, female participants were significantly more empathic toward all victims than were their male counterparts,” the authors noted in their study.
The general idea as to why we feel this way towards dogs, according to the research, is that we see them as having the same degree of vulnerability as kids; in other words, they are unable to protect themselves. Other studies, those that conclude we see dogs as "fur babies", indirectly support this.
The inspiration from the study partly came about due to the attention a rather controversial case was getting on social media. A pit bull mauled a 4-year-old boy in Phoenix, Arizona back in 2014, leaving him with serious injuries that needed reconstructive surgery.
The dog was threatened with euthanasia, and a campaign was set up to save him from this fate. Within a few weeks, Mickey the dog’s Facebook page had more than 40,000 likes, whereas the page supporting the boy had around 500.
Another case involved a charity advertisement, one which used a stock photo of a dog, and one which used a photograph of a real boy who was suffering from a form of muscular dystrophy. The fundraising campaign gained twice as many clicks when the image of the dog was used in their adverts.
Although it’s “wrong to assume” that animal victims will always elicit a greater emotional response than human victims – particularly based on how humans have historically treated animals – this study implies that this is true when all we know about the adults is that they’ve been victimized.
Along with the fact that dogs are unwaveringly adoring to their human masters, it probably helps that, according to a separate study, dogs knowingly adjust their facial expressions to elicit a positive reaction in humans. Much like people, they can manipulate us into caring for them.
In any case, there is a practical side to this work. Violence towards vulnerable people and animals can be seen all over the world, and based on this study, the authors suspect that a good way to engender humane attitudes in groups of people is to emphasize the vulnerability of the victims.
“By emphasizing shared vulnerability, rather than focusing on exposure to violence and aggression, innovative programs could reshape the treatment and prevention of animal abuse,” they concluded.