Article image

Do humans empathize more with people or other animals?

Empathy is by definition, trying to feel the experience of another. Researchers recently asked whether people empathize more with other people or with animals. The study was published in a special issue of the journal Social Psychology.

To investigate this question, scientists recruited 193 participants. The research subjects were then asked whether they wanted to empathize with a human or an animal. If the participants said human, they were shown a picture of a college age person and asked to put themselves in their situation. If they chose an animal, the participants were shown the image of a koala bear. In this study, the participants more often chose the human. 

“Participants indicated that empathizing with animals felt more challenging, and that belief of empathy being more difficult drove them to choose animal empathy less,” said study lead author Daryl Cameron of the Rock Ethics Institute. “It’s possible that people felt empathizing with a mind that’s unlike our own was more challenging than imagining the experience of another human.”

Another study illuminated and complicated things a bit more. In a second study, two new groups of 192 and 197 participants were given two choices. First, researchers asked one group to either empathize with or just describe without empathizing a person. The second group was given the same choice but with a koala instead of a person. Interestingly, with the image of the human, people tended to avoid empathizing. With the image of the koala people didn’t avoid empathy but embraced it.     

“It’s possible that if people are seeing humans and animals in competition, it might lead to them preferring to empathize with other humans,” said Cameron. “But if you don’t see that competition, and the situation is just deciding whether to empathize with an animal one day and a human the other, it seems that people don’t want to engage in human empathy but they’re a little bit more interested in animals.”

The researchers hope that this sort of psychology study might help better target conservation efforts and in the end help further the cause of wild animals. 

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day