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The Psychology Behind Why We Love and Exploit Animals

An interview with Kristof Dhont and Gordon Hodson about their unique book.

A few months ago, I was asked to write an endorsement for a book edited by Dr. Kristof Dhont (University of Kent, UK) and Dr. Gordon Hodson (Brock University, Canada and Psychology Today writer) called Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy. I wanted to learn more about this landmark book and how it came about. I was thrilled the editors could take the time to answer a few questions. Our interview went as follows:

Why did you decide to edit Why We Love and Exploit Animals?

Kristof: The idea for this book started when Gordon was visiting me in Kent for a research visit and a conference in the summer of 2016. We were both attending the conference of the International Society for Justice Research taking place in my department and we had organised a symposium on the psychology of “(de)valuing animals."

Because of this growing research interest, we finally started to get some answers to frequently reoccurring questions such as how it is possible and easy for many people to be involved in the exploitation of animals to feed, to clothe, and to entertain themselves, while simultaneously professing to love animals. We then realized that it would be really valuable and timely to bring those different research lines together in one book. Yet, at the same time, we felt that this rapidly emerging field would also greatly benefit from cross-pollination with the ideas from other disciplines, as well as with the insights from those on the frontlines of animal advocacy.

How did you choose your contributors?

Kristof: As psychologists ourselves, we started with listing the psychologists we wanted to invite. We were particularly looking for people that were active in research and have already made a significant contribution to the research on some of the major topics in the field such as the meat paradox, the psychology of human-animal relations, speciesism, and the links with dehumanization and intergroup relations.

Naturally, the names of people like Catherine Amiot, Brock Bastian, Hal Herzog, Steve Loughnan, Jared Piazza, and Paul Rozin sprung to mind (among others). We were caught off guard by their enthusiasm for the book and eagerness to contribute a chapter.

Gordon: Indeed, it soon became apparent to us that we needed to reach outside of psychology to properly address this question, so we invited scholars in other disciplines, such as John Sorenson (Sociology), Vanessa Woods (Evolutionary Anthropology), and Brian Hare (Evolutionary Anthropology, Psychology, and Neuroscience).

But we also needed the insights from thinkers and advocates outside of academia, that is, with advocates who work “on the ground." Carol Adams’ work on the sexual politics of meat is a seminal feminist (and animal) text, so we were delighted to bring her on board. Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, was also an eager contributor; his work has been critical in the push to protect animals in the U.S. In Europe, advocates such as Tobias Leenaert have become pivotal in promoting veganism; we were thrilled to have him come on board so quickly after the publication of his recent book (How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach).

What are some of your major themes and messages?

Gordon: We recognize that thinking about animals is difficult and complicated; human-animal relations are characterized by dominance, neglect, and exploitation by humans. Paradoxically, people generally think of themselves as good and decent people, and indeed, most people say that they “like” or even “love” animals. But most people also are heavily engaged in the exploitation and maltreatment of animals, for food, clothing, entertainment, labour, etc.

[Along these lines, when people tell me how much they love other animals and then go on to harm or kill them, often routinely, I always say "I'm glad they don't love me," and this frequently generates very interesting, useful, and polite conversations about the complex and paradoxical nature of nonhuman-human relationships.]

A central theme of the book, therefore, is that humans build and nurture a convoluted cognitive infrastructure to deal with (and manage) the ambivalence that results from our conflicted thinking about animals. As we write in the book, “Cognitive dissonance probably plays a stronger role in justifying meat consumption than any other human activity." Better understanding our relation to animals, in this way, can help us to better understand human psychology, so it should also be of interest to all psychologists.

Another central theme of the book is that our thinking about animals obviously hurts animals, but it also comes at a tremendous cost to ourselves. It comes at a cost to our humanity and seriously undermines notions of justice.

Another cost to humanity concerns the climate emergency we now face; animal exploitation is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet this exploitation is entirely optional. We do not need to eat or wear or be entertained by animals. It’s a human choice, which is precisely why the rationalization infrastructure becomes so essential. If we had no choice, we’d likely not be so defensive and irrational in our thinking about animals.

Kristof: As is clear from the themes mentioned by Gordon, the book devotes plenty of space to the psychological and systemic factors responsible for animal suffering and social injustice, painting a rather dark and pessimistic picture. Of course, this automatically triggers the question of how we can address animal suffering in an effective way, which is another main theme addressed in the book.

From a psychological angle, emphasizing that non-human animals are similar in many ways to humans can elevate the status of animals, especially with regard to features that people find morally relevant such as animal’s capability to suffer and to think (having a mind). Yet resistance to such techniques can still be subject to rationalizations that help us continue harmful behaviors. A more comprehensive approach is likely needed where education programs combined with empathy inducing experiences alter the way we think and feel about animals.

How does your book differ from others on similar topics?

Gordon: Kristof and I have lots to say about animals! But we didn’t want to write a book that focused solely on our own thinking and interpretation. The field is advancing at a fantastic pace and we wanted to draw people together at this critical juncture.

Our book is different in that it is an edited volume (and not a book solely of our views), but what makes it particularly unique is that we deliberately edited a book that draws together academics and animal advocates, two groups that often don’t move in the same circles, and often talk past each other without even knowing it.

To be honest, we were excited by the challenge and potential payoff. This venture could have fallen flat on its face. Instead, we found the authors eager and hungry to participate. It quickly became clear to us that, although (or perhaps because) such a venture had never been undertaken before, these thoughtful people were looking for an outlet to speak about animals with humanity, in a way that is also grounded in science and on-the-ground advocacy.

Who is your intended audience?

Kristof: We want to reach everyone who has ever wondered about why we love and exploit animals, wants to gain a better understanding of human-animal relations, or questions the current state of affairs and what can be done about it.

While academics and students in the social and behavioral sciences and humanities will find a wealth of scientific information in the book that will inform and inspire them in their own scholarly activities, the book is directed towards a much broader audience outside academia. The contents will also have a strong appeal to members of animal rights organizations, animal rights advocates, policymakers, and charity workers.

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

Kristof: For the interested readers, we will be hosting a conference titled Animal Advocacy: Insights from the Social Sciences from 24-26 June 2020 on the Canterbury Campus of the University of Kent (U.K.). Like the book, the Animal Advocacy Conference brings together researchers from different fields in the social and behavioral sciences, and animal activists and advocates from around the world. More info about the conference can be found here.

We also want to thank everyone who contributed this book in one way or another, including all the authors, the reviewers, and the publisher.