The Weakest Among Us

Empathy is a complex emotion for us humans. In many ways, it seems to be disappearing from society. Because of the constant media barrage of violence, death, and despair, we are becoming increasingly desensitized to the suffering of others. So why is it so easy to generate empathy for suffering animals?

recent study by criminologist Jack Levin reveals a possible reason that might surprise you.

In this study, the participants were asked to respond to a fake news story about a victim who was assaulted with a baseball bat, leaving him or her unconscious with several broken limbs. While the story was the same, it differed in one crucial detail: the identity of the victim, which was either a one-year-old baby, an adult human, a six-year-old dog, or a puppy.

Respondents showed the same level of empathy for the baby, the puppy, and the adult dog, but significantly less for the adult human. This suggests that our empathy level is unrelated to species. Rather, it has to do with perceived helplessness and vulnerability.

The natural affection we feel for animals can be compared to the affection we feel for our children. We impulsively care for them and desire to help them because they are unable to help themselves easily. Our perception of adult humans is that they can easily speak up for their rights or defend themselves from danger. But that is not true of children and animals, who are completely at the mercy of others for shelter, food, and protection.

Children and animals both demonstrate an innocence that we feel compelled to protect. So in fact, our increased empathy for dogs and cats has nothing to do with a preference for a certain species, and everything to do with our innate human desire to protect and nurture those who are innocent and helpless.

The next time you find your blood boiling over the latest news story about an abused dog (or an abused child), now you can understand the reason. Another interesting fact that emerged from this study: female respondents were far likelier to show equal empathy for all four hypothetical victims.

But beyond our impulse to care for the helpless, what else is going on in our relationship with animals?

Unconditional Love

It’s true. We all yearn for it and crave it.

Someone who loves us for who we are. Who has zero expectations? Who is always happy to see us, no matter how grumpy we may be feeling today. We crave unconditional love. In human relationships, this precious commodity is almost impossible to find.

But not with pets.

It doesn’t matter if your boss yelled at you, your boyfriend broke up with you, or your car broke down. Your beloved Fido or Morris is there for you. He is rubbing up against you, looking at you with those adoring eyes. Wagging his tail or purring contentedly.

“Animals touch the most intimate parts of our hearts: our need to nurture and protect, our need for companionship and love.”

Your dog or cat doesn’t care whether you’re skinny, rich, athletic, or popular. He or she just wants you: your presence, your affection, your voice, and your touch. And in this “dog-eat-dog” world (pun intended), that means everything. As a matter of fact, this unconditional love is so important to us that it can change our brain chemistry.

Spending time with a pet has been found to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and release chemicals that trigger relaxation. Overall, pet owners are just healthier (both physically and mentally) than those who don’t own pets.

Some of us even like to talk about our pets, going so far as to confide in them about our problems. And you won’t find a more supportive audience anywhere. No matter what you tell them, they won’t judge you. They’ll continue to love you just as much as they did before. And unlike humans, you never have to worry that they might talk behind your back or betray your confidence.

And what about the social benefits of pet ownership?

Studies have found that pet owners are less likely to be lonely. Besides your pet’s companionship, they also make it easier for you to connect with congenial humans. How many times have you made a new friend because they interacted with your lovable pet first?

They also help lonely people to discover a sense of meaning or purpose in their lives. And also, interactions with pets are a proven mood booster. When you think of the obvious benefits they provide, it’s no wonder we love them so much.

But besides these benefits, some cultural influences are surrounding our love of pets.

Pet Adoration: Influences And Ironies

We love animals, sure. But do we love all animals equally?

If we analyze our feelings carefully, we find that most of our adoration of animals centers on dogs and cats. We sometimes might feel empathy for certain large wild animals such as elephants, dolphins, or lions. When we read about a lion or an elephant who is hunted and killed in the wild, our response is one of anger, almost as much anger as hearing stories of abuse and neglect of dogs and cats.

But there is a basic irony about these feelings. The routine slaughter of animals for food (cattle, chickens, pigs, etc.) doesn’t faze us nearly as much. How is it that one African lion brutally killed for sport elicits powerful empathy…while the 39 million cows and calves that are killed every year in slaughterhouses leaves us unmoved?

There are several psychological explanations as to why that might be.

First, we must account for the influence of pop culture. Take a few moments to think about how many pet movies you watched as a kid. LassieLady and the TrampScooby-Doo. And many, many more. All of these media portrayals endow dogs and cats with human qualities. They talk to each other, indulge in dreams for the future, and fall in love just like we do. Popular culture has drilled it into us over generations that our pets are just like humans. And this cultural perception is not going to go away any time soon.

Our reverence for dogs and cats over other kinds of animals could also be explained by something called “the collapse of compassion.” This is the psychological principle which tells us that the more tragedy we see, the less we care. It’s the reason that you may not feel any compassion for the millions of people living in extreme poverty, while the story of one child who has to live on the street with no medical care is likely to move you to want to help.

Empathy: It’s Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Given all these considerations, it’s easy to understand why some of us seem to prefer animals over humans. But the reality is a much bigger picture than we realize.

Animals touch the most intimate parts of our hearts: our need to nurture and protect, our need for companionship and love. These needs exist within us, no matter what. But it seems that animals have a unique ability to bring them out in us. Dogs, cats, even lions, and monkeys inspire us to reveal these deep human needs, which we might otherwise keep hidden.

And there’s nothing pathological about that. In fact, it proves that we have a deep capacity to love and care for others under the right circumstances.

Paradoxically, our love and care for animals free us to be human.

Amy Gardner

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn



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