If you have a harder time empathizing with human suffering than with pets in peril, you’re not alone. According to a study published earlier this year in Society & Animals, humans may project more pity when a dog is perceived to be in trouble than when a person is ailing under similar circumstances.
To assess whether people were more concerned with dogs than with their fellow Homo sapiens, researchers at Northwestern University gathered 240 undergraduate subjects between the ages of 18 and 23 and gave them a series of fictitious newspaper stories about a senseless attack. In all of the stories, the victim was hit with a baseball bat, suffered a broken leg and lacerations, and was found unconscious by first responders.
While those details remained consistent, researchers randomized the text so it would mention one of four victims: an adult, a 1-year-old infant, a 6-year-old dog, or a puppy. (Yes, this study used the premise of a baby being pummeled with a bat. All in the name of science.)
The researchers suspected that the victims' age, not species—where a younger age would indicate a greater degree of vulnerability—would determine participants' empathy for them. Using questions to measure their empathy levels on a numerical scale from seven (little empathy) to 112 (a lot of empathy), the organizers then quizzed subjects on how they felt about each of the cases. They were most upset by the attacks on the infant, followed by the puppy and older dog. The adult human, while considered tragic, scored lowest. "Age makes a difference for empathy toward human victims, but not for dog victims," the researchers wrote.
Female participants, who made up almost three-quarters of the study group, were also found to be much more sympathetic toward all of the victims than male participants.
The authors say the results were borne out, in part, of the perceived helplessness of the victims, regardless of whether they were puppies or children. In the end, one thing is reasonably certain: We're just as concerned about our fur babies as we are with young humans.
[h/t Travel + Leisure]