Picking teams for the upcoming interspecies tournament of death...
January 18, 2008 5:02 AM   Subscribe

At a cocktail party last weekend, an Anthropologist was telling me about an experiment/study where people were shown videos of various animals preying on one another, and then measured their reactions. The findings, he contends, were that humans were largely more sympathetic to the deaths of animals more similar to themselves (i.e. sharing a more recent common ancestor). What is this study, what is this area of research called, and where can I read more about it?

As in: Humans were more likely to have a sympathetic (or negative, or disgusted) reaction to a snake being killed and eaten by a tarantula (because the snake is a chordate/has a backbone... like us) than we would if the roles were reversed and the snake was eating the tarantula.

Likewise, we'd be on the side of the squirrel (mammal) in any configuration of "squirrel eating snake" or "snake eating squirrel" confrontation. And so on and so on.

For what it's worth, the guy seemed to know his shit, and spoke eloquently about it. I'm interested in reading more about it. Please do offer any insights you might have. Thanks so much.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know of an article that's specifically about human reactions to different types of animal deaths, but this type of research generally falls under the umbrella of evolutionary psychology and/or human behavioral ecology. A fantastic textbook-style book on the subject is titled Human Evolutionary Psychology by Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett. The basic premise of evolutionary psychology is that our brains evolved to solve recurring problems in our ancestral environment and that there is a host of psychological mechanisms for such tasks as predator-prey detection, inferences about pollutants, folk biology, and folk psychology, or basic intuitions about other people's minds. Within the literature are tons of examples similar to the one you just mentioned, brought together to try and chart some of our evolutionarily motivated behaviors and cognitive predispositions.

I hope this is helpful- I think that reading this book or another on evolutionary psychology would help frame this and a lot of equally fascinating examples. Feel free to mefi mail me if this is interesting to you and you have any questions.
posted by farishta at 5:16 AM on January 18, 2008

This is not a reading or particularly insightful, but this video of a giant centipede eating a mouse (featured on the blue) is one of the most disturbing videos on the internet for exactly the reasons you state.
posted by null terminated at 5:34 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not an anthropologist, and I may be cynical, but it sounds too good to be true, or at least like it might've been overstated, like cocktail party conversation, or 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.' Like I said, though, I'm not an anthropologist, and I'd love to be proven wrong.

Also, they don't call that guy a giant centipede for nothing.
posted by box at 6:15 AM on January 18, 2008

slight derail: growing up in Hawaii, we had a lot of centipedes that size running around, and one night camping I woke up with one on my neck. When I went to brush it away half asleep I realized what it was and grabbed it to throw to the other side of the tent, and as I grabbed the centipede it bit my neck so it pulled some of the flesh off my neck as I threw it. They always travel in pairs too, so I spent the rest of the night scouring the tent for the other one (found it curled up by my feet). I found this much more disturbing than watching that mouse. I have about 700 other great centipede stories. Anyone?
posted by rooftop secrets at 9:39 AM on January 18, 2008

see your giant centipede/mouse, raise you praying mantis gets hummer.
posted by bruce at 9:51 AM on January 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

I recall seeing similar studies about how donations to conservation efforts tend to favor "charismatic species" (i.e. cuter animals) so it's a documented effect. You might try starting your googling there to get to the psychology of this phenomenon.

Also, when my dog chases squirrels I root for him, although if he actually caught one I'd feel bad. But secretly proud.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 11:18 AM on January 18, 2008

Ethology is also an area to look at (study of animal behavior in natural settings), as is the study of empathy in general and within evolutionary psychology.
posted by Maias at 12:48 PM on January 18, 2008

If you are a This American Life fan, you might like Act One. Food Chain in a New York Apartment from an episode from 2001 about animals. I remember listening to it a while back and the theme seemed similar to your question.
posted by bmosher at 1:05 AM on January 20, 2008

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