Occasionally, a reporter will ask me why news stories about animal abuse evoke greater public outrage than reports about child abuse. Take, for example, this story from the Boston Globe.
October 16th, 2010: After a noticeable increase of attacks against residents of certain Boston neighborhoods, Police Commissioner Davis has assigned a larger law enforcement presence to crime “hotspots” around the City. Last week, police investigators documented a total of 11 attacks on residents of the South End alone. According to witnesses present, one particularly vicious assault involved a one-year-old puppy that was beaten with a baseball bat by an unknown assailant. Arriving on the scene a few minutes after the attack, a police officer found the victim with one broken leg, multiple lacerations, and unconscious. No arrests have been made in the case.
The idea of a puppy being pummeled half to death by a bat-wielding thug is horrifying -- thus you will be relieved to learn this event never happened. Nor did the “newspaper article” appear in the Boston Globe. The story was a fake. It was fabricated as part of an experiment by Northeastern University sociologists Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke. Jack is a noted authority on serial killers and mass murderers, and Arnie is one of the most creative and prolific researchers in the field of anthrozoology (the study of human-animal interactions). They wanted to test the widespread belief that people are more upset by animal cruelty than human-directed violence.
Their experiment was simple. Two hundred and forty university students read one of four versions of the Boston Globe baseball bat story. (They were told it was a real.) The accounts were identical except for the victims -- which was either a puppy, an adult dog, a one year-old human child, or a human adult. After the subjects read one of the fake articles, they indicated the degree of sympathy they felt for the victim on an emotional response scale that included 15 dimensions of personal distress.
The Results: Dogs or People?
As a group, women had higher emotional response scores than men to the fake articles. No surprise there. Hundreds of studies have found that women are more empathetic than men and are more concerned with animal suffering. (See this review article on sex differences in human-animal interactions.) The more interesting question is whether the subjects were more concerned about dogs than people. The answer, as Levin and Arluke reported at the 2013 meeting of the American Sociological Association, is that it depended on which people and which dogs.
The results are shown in this graph. The X-shaped pattern reveals what is referred to in stat-speak as an “interaction effect.” In this case, the interaction is between the species of the victim (human
Empathy scores to humans and dog abuse news stories
versus dog) and their age (young versus old). The participants were most upset by fake news reports of an attack on a one year-old child followed closely by a puppy. And they were least distressed by attacks on a human adult. While empathy to human suffering depended on whether the victim was a child or an adult, there was no difference between the degree of empathy directed toward the puppy and the adult dog.
The study attracted the attention of the national press. Jack Levin was quoted in the Huffington Post as saying, "Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering. Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component."
Oddly, the HuffPo headline for their story on the research was misleading. It screamed “Empathy with Dogs Stronger than with Humans.” In reality, however, the fake article depicting a human child victim elicited the most empathy.
The bottom line is that the subjects did not care more about dogs than people: they cared more about creatures who were perceived as innocent and helpless, regardless of whether they had two legs or four.
So the next time I am asked why people are more upset by animal abuse than child abuse, I will probably say, "Well, a lot of the time, they aren't."
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For a related Animals and Us post, see Would You Save A Puppy Or A Child From A Burning Building.
Arnold Arluke’s latest book is The Photographed Cat.
Jack Levin’s research on human mayhem is described in his book Serial Killers and Sadistic Murders: Up Close and Personal (lnk)
Hal Herzog is professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.