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12-12-2022

Social stereotypes of animals we love, hate and eat

Interactions between humans and animals are complex, and shaped by many factors. While most people would agree that non-human animals should not be intentionally mistreated, they differ widely in their attitudes towards what constitutes acceptable use of animals. Someone who objects to using animals for laboratory testing may be quite happy spending a few hours fishing over the weekend, for example. A new study now seeks to assess people’s social perceptions about various non-human animals to find out what drives their judgements of these species.

The researchers tested the social value judgements of the 16 different animal species. They applied the Stereotype Content Model (SCM) of cognitive processing to people’s perceptions of the animal species. This model has previously been used to understand people’s social perceptions of human groups and is based on our stereotypical application of judgements in the dimensions of warmth and competence. Thus, participants were first asked to rate the 16 animals in terms of their warmth and competence. 

A total of 323 Singaporean participants of various religious and cultural backgrounds was recruited for the study. Of these, 42 were vegetarians, 76 were animal activists and 205 were students at a private university. The researchers hypothesized that the vegetarians and animal activists may have different social perceptions of the animal species included in the study. The average age of the participants was 26 years.

Among the animals considered were those that we use for food and domestic pets, as well as some that are iconic and fascinating. The animals included shark, alligator, pig, dog, octopus, rabbit, cow and orangutan. Participants’ ratings of these animals, in terms of their warmth and competence, were subjected to multi-dimensional scaling analysis to identify whether they fall into particular groupings. 

The results, published in the CABI journal Human-Animal Interactions, showed that, although participants rated each animal species differently in terms of warmth and competence, their social value judgements of the animals were indeed grouped into four distinct groups – those we love, those we dislike, those that are worthy of saving and those that we are indifferent to. The participants felt warmth about dogs, horses and orangutans and disliked alligators, octopuses, tuna, frogs and prawns. Those worth saving were tiger, shark and dolphin (for their power and competence), while rabbit, cow, pig and lamb were deemed rather incompetent and not very lovable. 

The researchers found that the ratings of the animal species were the same for the neutral group of participants from the university as they were for the group comprising vegetarians and animal activists. Only the chicken was perceived differently by the two groups, with the vegetarians and animal activists feeling more warmth towards chickens than did the university students. 

Study lead author Dr. Paul Patinadan is a graduate of James Cook University, Australia and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and is now with the National Healthcare Group.

“Participants rated the 16 nonhuman animal species significantly differently on dimensions of warmth and competence. However, people’s ethical ideologies about nonhuman animals do not seem to affect the social permutations they grant to the different species,” said Dr. Patinadan.

“The current findings suggest that general human feelings about nonhuman animals might be sourced from mental shortcuts of adaptive social value judgements and permutations,” he explained. “Understanding the place of our own moral judgments amongst nonhuman animals might help to finally define the nebulous nature of human interaction with the beings that share our world with us.”

The researchers reported that the SCM approach of using social judgements in terms of warmth and competence did result in meaningful clusters of animals into distinct groups, with each group reflecting a specific prejudicial emotion. However, the most salient finding is that such morally heterogeneous groups as vegetarians, animal activists and university students hold similar stereotypes about the range of nonhuman animals studied. 

Study co-author Dr. Denise Dillon said that one of the limitations of the research is that it was conducted in the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore and responses were embedded within the culture’s own unique and specific idiosyncrasies and relationships to nonhuman animals. Future research may seek to identify the social judgements of people from different cultural and geographical backgrounds. 

In conclusion, it is clear that people hold different social perceptions about each of the animal species considered. This may help explain why we are able to practice selective empathy by caring deeply for some species while willfully hurting others. The documented triple-fold increase in food animal production over the past few decades, despite the rising awareness and concern about animal rights across the world, is a case in point. Humans have an impressive ability to blatantly ignore moral inconsistencies in how we think and feel about the animals that share our planet. 

By Alison Bosman, Earth.com Staff Writer

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