I want more empathy.
April 29, 2011 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Are there any psychologists out there who know why we are able to generate so much empathy for animals but not for humans?

I had previously seen the video from this thread about two elephants who reunite after years of separation. It's certainly a tear jerker, but I was concerned about my own reaction to it versus the reaction I have when I see a human in need on the street and feel less moved.

Is it some sort of self-defense survival mechanism and/or is it a product of my culture? Or is it just that I am assaulted with so many more stories human misery that it has made me indifferent?
posted by notion to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I spoke to sculptor Beth Cavener Stichter about this, and she said it's because we are able to project sympathetic attributes onto animals far more easily; when you see a person, you imagine a specific person like yourself, and you judge/evaluate/compare based on your own social experiences. Also we are protective of animals because we see them as "lower" less intelligent creatures, so pity comes more automatically.
posted by hermitosis at 9:47 AM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oops, submitted too fast..

You probably see neglected or abused animals all the time, perhaps without even noticing. It's only when tearjerker videos that point out animals in this manner that most people are able to see and empathize for animals.
posted by zug at 9:52 AM on April 29, 2011

Don't mistake your personal feelings for global phenomena. The question isn't why "we" have more empathy for animals than for people, it's why you do.

(and to be fair it is probably very circumstance dependent; I'm sure you could find a video of two reunited people that would be just as much a tearjerker for you.)
posted by ook at 9:54 AM on April 29, 2011 [11 favorites]

I am not sure what the psych literature has on this. Assuming there is evidence to support what you are saying, if I were to start researching the topic I would definitely consider the just world hypothesis and the fundamental attribution error.
posted by Silvertree at 10:08 AM on April 29, 2011

Just as a point of reference, I grew up in a middle class suburb in the metro East Coast and saw many of the same behaviors in my youth as zug recounts. We also had a neighbor with a very sweet little neglected pug dog who lived in a chain link enclosure 24/7 and the owners' method of interaction was generally yelling at the dog to shut up. There are probably some class markers and I've noticed that animal treatment can be more brutal in rural areas but it isn't exlusive to them.
posted by Miko at 10:11 AM on April 29, 2011

I had previously seen the video from this thread about two elephants who reunite after years of separation. It's certainly a tear jerker, but I was concerned about my own reaction to it versus the reaction I have when I see a human in need on the street and feel less moved.

Bad example: elephant herds are extended families, I believe. Those elephants likely had spent years together before their years of separation. If you saw family members or a close friends in need on the street, you would likely go to their aid.

And, likewise, we tend, at least in the urbanized world, to treat animals like children, our wards, and, since they can't speak, we project an enormous unconditional love on their part for us and are convinced we treat them likewise with gentle caring kindness. We see them as vulnerable, helpless and in need and we can see even wild animals the same way, if to a lesser degree.
posted by y2karl at 10:26 AM on April 29, 2011

My aunt is this way. If a tornado hits in the midwest, she doesn't care much about the people (by her own admission) but it's "those poor puppies from all the puppy farms in the midwest, being left to die" that makes her upset.

Granted, both the deaths of humans and animals are deeply upsetting things. But I think from what I've gleaned from my aunt, that she sees animals as "blameless" "helpless" and "innocent," whereas people are much less so, in her opinion. Even children she sees as potentially growing up into "bad people" and therefore less of a loss, whereas in her mind there is no such thing as a "bad animal."

It's very hard for me to understand, but that's the best I can figure out, from one person.
posted by np312 at 10:31 AM on April 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

I've wondered about my own reactions in this respect--if I were to see a video of a severely injured animal, and one of a child with a comparable injury, I would have a sharper emotional reaction to the animal than to the child, although I would believe, rationally, that the child "matters" more, and would, I hope, help the child first.

I think the explanation, at least for me, is in the idea of "unmitigated suffering." There is no way to comfort the animal. It is easy to imagine the child being comforted by its mother, or even by a caring stranger. The animal can never understand its suffering; no one can tell it that the broken bone will heal. The animal cannot understand that its suffering will ease with time. There is no potential that emotional comfort or rational understanding might mitigate the animal's suffering; we are helpless against it.

With a suffering child, at least we can imagine offering reassurance, and having that reassurance do some good. Seeing the pain of an animal forces us to face the fact that there is suffering that has no possibility of relief. It makes us feel helpless--we hate that. One effective defense against that helplessness is to believe that the suffering of animals doesn't matter; that assumption makes abuse, neglect, and cruelty possible.
posted by Corvid at 10:35 AM on April 29, 2011 [6 favorites]

IANAP, but majored in psych, not that that qualifies me for anything... but I can speak from my own personal introspection on this. (I have pondered this question before, perhaps not so strangely enough).

For me, I think it boils down to the perceived responsibility for the circumstances that living creatures are found in, coupled with the"cute" (a.k.a. protect the child) instinct inherent in those who are sociologically programmed to anthropomorphize animals.

Basically, I feel that when I see an animal suffering or in discomfort, they probably didn't do anything other than what they are naturally "programmed" to do to be in that state. So in my mind they have no responsibility, due to their limitations on intelligence, or actions based on instinct, to any difficult situation they may be in. Conversely, a human finding themselves in pain, danger, or in an otherwise difficult situation (homeless, etc.) doesn't create the same empathy in me, because I tend to assign at least some responsibility to the person for being in that situation in the first place.

Couple that with the fact that most animals I come across are of teh kewt domesticated variety, I find myself wanting to put them in a big kitty/doggie/hamster/etc. pile on my head and wear them like a furry love hat.

(I will note, that I still do have this reaction, albeit a diminished one, for traditionally "non-cute" animals like reptiles and such)
posted by Debaser626 at 10:36 AM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree with the answers already posted, but I have another aspect of this situation to mention. People are out competitors, all the time. If you are trying to get a job, other people are applying for it. If you want to rent an apartment, someone else may rent the one you want before you do. When you fall in love with someone, there could be other suitors. When you travel on the bus, other people have taken all the seats. Other people are a constant source of problems. If I recall correctly it was Sartre who said "Hell is other people". Animals, in comparison, rarely have any capacity to cause us problems, on the contrary, they are generally controlled by people and serve human purposes (at least that is true of the cute animals; insects are another matter). So for people, there are going to be mixed feelings at best. Animals are easier to love.
posted by grizzled at 10:46 AM on April 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

People are our competitors, not out competitors. I am typing too quickly.
posted by grizzled at 10:47 AM on April 29, 2011

I should add that those idealistc notions I described above are attitudes of upper middle class adults, as others have noted. Also, like zug, I grew up in a small town in Idaho and it was Lord of the Flies all the way down -- cat torture and killing for sport was endemic. It wasn't necessarily an adult approved acitivity but it sure was a child approved one. I knew kids who bragged about throwing cats in burn barrelson vacation at Payette Lakes. I have heard of kindergarten age children killing kittens for fun by throwing them up in the air and over and over above a cement sidewalk.

Once, when in junior high, I was picked up by an older friend and given a ride home, during which time, he, upon the urging of his friend riding with him, ran over a cat in the street on the way home. It was an awful experience. It haunts me still. I would like to say that I excoriated him and his friend but in truth I was too shocked and sickened to say anything. Yet, years later, when we were both living in Seattle, when I brought the incident up, he insisted he had no memory of it and was intensely adamant that he would never ever ever do such a thing to any animal. And, certainly, the person he was as an adult would never have done such a thing.

I, myself, would like to think that the task of growing up and growing old is about learning to be kinder and kinder to those creatures, human and nonhuman, around us. But we sure don't start out as such vessels of gentle compassion.
posted by y2karl at 10:53 AM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

is it a product of my culture?

Yes. I could dig up some articles (or if anybody sees one they don't have access to, let me know) but instead I'll just say I think it's ownership and control.

When you see domesticated animals, you can own them. You can pick them up, do what you want to with them to comfort them or take care of them. You can control them. So you care, because you are in a position of power, where you can decide alone, what happens to this living thing, with virtually nobody that is really going to stop you or do anything to you. Also, them being 'domesticated', it's like they are just looking around for someone to own them and control them. If they look at you in a time of distress, it plays to that, I think.

If it is a nondomesticated animal, say a squirrel that you see run over but it's tail flapping in the breeze, the empathy comes from elsewhere I think. You see this animal as one of a million animals that was minding its own business and here come humans to intervene.

If you're in the forest and see a bird with a broken wing half flapping around, it's a different empathy. Maybe you look at it and pity how it is unable to truly master its surroundings, as you stomp through in your waterproof boots with water in a plastic container, wearing insect repellent.

So you see a kid on the street with a broken arm. You look around - you can't own this kid, where it it's owner? You see a homeless person - you can't control this person, keep walking.

So it ties into the whole idea of class when you have people who don't see themselves as "owners" but rather as citizens, and perhaps that's why many of them don't have that same empathy for animals. They are in the same boat as animals in some regards - unsure of the world around them, treated poorly by a system set up to not benefit them, and largely unable to gain much of a sense of ownership of their surroundings.
posted by cashman at 10:56 AM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Often empathy depends on the perception that others have some laudable (often rare) qualities that make them deserving of it. We don't really understand animal behavior, so they become a kind of blank screen on to which we can project our fantasies about them. For example, people say that their dog loves them unconditionally, even though they provide the dog with food, water, shelter, take them for walks, and so on. If they didn't do those things, the dog would probably not love them quite so much.

People don't really know what it's like to be a dog, so they use their imagination to create a character for them that's easy to love. This is probably because they don't think people are truly deserving of that.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:44 AM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's easier to empathize with animals because they are generally a simpler problem to solve. Getting involved with people is generally a bit more sticky, and more resource intensive and their problems can be scarier. I also think it's easier to see animals as pure victims with no agenda, whereas it's hard to look at a person and not wonder if they have any issues beyond needing help that will affect you.
I think it's interesting that if you compare empathizing with animals to empathizing with babies, the behavior becomes almost the same. We are willing to do more for the baby than an adult because we understand their level of helplessness and know that they have no ulterior motives.
As a thought experiment, compare situations: You are returning home to find an unknown dog/baby/man sleeping on your front step. You may wake the dog and may even pet it (or even adopt it), the baby you take inside and call the police, the man you'll generally tell to go find somewhere else to sleep (or just step over him). Whatever you do, you probably won't be inviting the sleeping man to spend the night on the couch. It's not practical and it's too scary. You can see it as a failure of altruism or just being practical (in a modern, middle class way).
posted by doctor_negative at 1:06 PM on April 29, 2011

The thing with animals is that their options, in sad or difficult circumstances, seem more limited. If I see a video of a starving horse tied to stake, and I think, shit, that's the end of that horse.

Whereas with people, we tend to feel the bar need to be higher before we start feeling sorry for them. Homeless guy on the street? Most of us, rightly or wrongly, assume he's getting fed, or can get a meal from a shelter.

Note that this is also one of the reasons we might feel more empathy for babies and little children as well. We know their chances of getting themselves out of a particular situation might be next to nil.

With adult humans we assume they have some degree of power, whether or not it's mistaken.

When I hear explicit stories of adult humans getting brutally tortured and raped to a degree where no escape is possible, I'm pretty sure my empathy and sorrow for them is beyond anything I've felt for any animal.

Also, this is a pretty culturally dependent question. In many cultures empathy for animals is practically nil. So perhaps there is some conditioning involved, in both yours and theirs.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:56 PM on April 29, 2011

This has bothered me for some years now. I used to work at a really popular used bookstore in Dallas and at every register we had two donation jars: one for a local animal shelter and one for a local charity for children with leukemia. The animal shelter jar filled up about ten times faster than the one for kids. I just could not understand it. I asked people when they put money in the animal jar why they chose that one (which is an asshole thing to do kind of but there was this great social experiment going on right in front of my eyes and I wanted to know people's motivations) and almost to a person the answer was because animals can't help themselves. When I pointed out the obvious, that children also can't help themselves, people usually responded that there were plenty of people willing to help children e.g. their parents, their family and, the number one answer, the church.
posted by holdkris99 at 2:38 PM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've thought about this issue often -- deep emotional empathy towards animals -- and what I usually arrive at is my own guilt. As a human being, I feel guilty for all the terrible things my fellow humans throughout history have done to the world and all its various inhabitants, and in particular, to those who have had no say in the process. Animals, *all* animals, are subject to the whim and fancy of human beings: we eat them; we play with them; we use their byproducts; we push them out of their habitat to build our tract homes; we heat the atmosphere and destroy their territory. There's little danger of human beings becoming extinct, but there are, what, about 1500 or so grey wolves left in the world? From a Darwinist perspective, I find myself on the side of the grizzly bear rather than the amateur naturalist living in their midst. There are far more of us and far fewer of them. And for the domesticated species who have benefited from our protection -- cats, dogs, farm animals, etc -- it can hardly be argued that their lot in life is better for our self-interested involvement. Empathy is motivated out of guilt.
posted by mmmcmmm at 2:51 PM on April 29, 2011

I am definitely a person who generally has more empathy for animals and I feel pretty unapologetic about it. Humans have the potential to be horrible in ways animals can't (although chimps sometimes come pretty close - eeugh), and I view them as inherently "good", the way we tend to view nature as inherently good. Even when they hurt us, they do it out of instinct rather than any ill-intention. Human are much more mixed bag and I find that my empathy level for them is very individualized, although there is one broad swath of people I generally have very high empathy for - elderly men - which is a probably a combination of kindly feelings toward perceived helplessness and positive life experiences with that group of people.

I find I'm much more likely to be generous toward individual humans that touch my heart for some reason or another than groups of humans (disaster victims, for example), but from what I know about fundraising techniques, that's a pretty common.

I think you're either the kind of person who believes humanity is the whole point or the kind of person who, although they may be very fond of certain humans, views humanity as a sort of unfortunate aberration where life on earth is concerned. If you're the latter, it definitely makes sense to be more empathetic toward animals as humanity is doing the world no favors with its existence.
posted by Jess the Mess at 3:39 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe some of us just don't like people?

I'm also much more likely to give to charities involving people than children, simply because I'm really fed up with people asking women (I'm female) to do things for children all the damn time.
posted by Violet Hour at 3:53 PM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have thought about this too. If you'll indulge me, I want to throw two points into the mix.

1. Why is it that you are more likely to care for a cute animal like a puppy or a parrot than a horrid one like a rat or a cockroach? An easy question: Which would you save first?

2. At the risk of ending the discussion by bringing up the Nazis, it is well known that in Nazi Germany there was a high level of awareness of animal rights (see Wikipedia on the subject.) This while simultaneously conducting gruesome experiments on living human beings in the concentration camps.
posted by seatofmypants at 4:34 PM on April 29, 2011

the video ... about two elephants

A carefully constructed narrative about pretty much anything can inspire sympathy. I can't speak to your specific reaction, but remember how many people were moved by the youtube video about that homeless guy with a perfect voice for radio a few months ago.

On the converse, the very real and immediate homeless people you see on the streets of your own community don't have a slickly edited video casting them as romantic heroes. Thus you are unlikely to see them that way.

I don't think anyone who isn't really messed up would honestly save an elephant over a flesh and blood fellow human being, all things being equal. (In other words assuming the elephant didn't have a cute viral video while the human did not.)
posted by Sara C. at 5:02 PM on April 29, 2011

Thanks for your post and the opportunity to put a bunch of previously not very well thought out snippets together and give it a good think.

Over the years I've observed that people who were not loved well enough by their parents, especially people who survived malignant narcissist parents, often relate to the innocence, child-like playfulness, vulnerability and blamelessness of animals more than with other human beings.

Having been wounded myself by abuse in childhood I was astounded by the love that flowed out of me towards animals and even more astounded to feel that much love from animals. As I healed in therapy I was able to accept the flaws and limitations in others, in myself, in animals and still feel mutual love.

The wounds of those betrayed deeply by humans may be relieved by the direct and more trustworthy relationship with animals. Animals are intensely loyal to those who care for them, which is not often the case in human relationships. The child-like part of wounded humans is healed by contact with animals who are so obviously grateful and appreciative of kindness, love and companionship.

Survivors of abuse in their childhoods tend to have issues with being able to trust others and some degree of black and white thinking, perceiving others as either all good or all bad, rather than imperfect humans who are still lovable in spite of sometimes being difficult, the cause of frustration, disappointment or emotional conflict.

Animals are much easier to perceive as all good, since their intentions are less political, less complex, less masked than human intentions. Because of the feeling that animals are safer emotionally to connect with, it's easier to feel empathy for animals. Since animals have some of the directness and easy to understand desire for gratification that children have, there is a both a child-like tenderness in humans that is enhanced being around animals and a parental aspect to caring for animals, talking to animals as if they are children,which is very conducive to experiencing empathy and reciprocity.

Some people, imo, get stuck or limited in only feeling comfortable experiencing empathy for animals and not for humans. I think in that case, when there is healing of childhood wounds, accepting of human flaws in oneself and others, while protecting oneself from more abuse, I think once-wounded people can expand their empathy experience from animals to humans.
posted by nickyskye at 5:20 PM on April 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Is it some sort of self-defense survival mechanism and/or is it a product of my culture?

Probably a product of your culture. I have no empathy for animals at all, probably because I never had pets growing up and mostly interacted with books and computers.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:20 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would suggest you might find the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: why it's so hard to think straight about animals to be useful.

Here's part of the Publisher's Weekly review:
"How rational are we in our relationship with animals? A puppy, after all, is "a family member in Kansas, a pariah in Kenya, and lunch in Korea". An animal behaviorist turned one of the world's foremost authorities on human-animal relations, Herzog [the author] shows us, in this readable study, how whimsical our attitudes can be."
posted by librarylis at 10:55 AM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am just blown away by the quality of the responses. Thank you guys.
posted by notion at 2:02 PM on April 30, 2011

I'm still looking for some literature and I will post if I find anything interesting. Library science homeboys are on the case...
posted by notion at 10:52 AM on May 4, 2011

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