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What if a human and a dog stood side-by-side and both needed help, but you could only choose one. It wouldn’t be an easy decision, would it? Some studies reveal when it comes to feeling empathy, many people pick pooches over other people. Does that surprise you?
Sociologists and anthropologists from Northeastern University and the University of Colorado pondered why, when reports of animals in need make headlines, the outrage and response level is sometimes higher than when tragedies impact humans.
The researchers asked 256 college students to read a fictitious news report, and reveal their levels of empathy for a brutally beaten adult or child versus an adult dog or puppy.
The results: The undergrads felt more empathy toward the dogs than the adult human. The study says, “We also found more empathy for victims who are human children, puppies, and fully-grown dogs than for victims who are adult humans. Age makes a difference for empathy toward human victims, but not for dog victims.”
The study also mentions a British charity which also conducted its own dog-versus-person empathy experiment. It ran a fundraising campaign featuring two versions of the same ad.
According to the research, “Both contained text that read, ‘Would you give £5 to save Harrison from a slow, painful death?’ One version featured a picture of the real Harrison Smith, an eight-year-old boy diagnosed with Duchenne (Muscular Dystrophy). The other featured a stock photo of a dog.
When the ads ran on MSN’s United Kingdom website with links to donate to the charity, the one depicting the dog attracted twice as many clicks as the one with the boy (230, compared to 111).”
Why would people pick pooches over people? The study pontificates: “It may be that many people appraise dogs as vulnerable, regardless of their age, when compared to adult humans. In other words, dogs, whether young or adult, are seen as possessing many of the same qualities associated with human babies; they are seen as unable to fully protect themselves, compared to adult humans.”
Psychotherapist Justin Lioi agrees. “We are more able to empathize with someone whom we deem to have little blame for their circumstances,” Lioi told I Love My Dog. “Dogs and babies are the definition of didn’t-ask-for-this and we are more likely to rush to support them.”
Dr. Kathrine McAleese, a sociologist and systemic psychotherapist, has clients who work extensively with dogs. She said she sees this phenomenon regularly. “People who fit this study’s outcomes will often view animals as innocents and humans as not having the same purity,” McAleese told I Love My Dog. “When I ask them why they will spend money on their dog’s health, fitness, nutrition, yet not on themselves, the overwhelming answer I get is ‘because my dog deserves it.’”
McAleese adds dog trainers have told her how they struggle to have patience or empathy for the owner, yet have endless patience for the dog. “Why? The dog can’t speak up for itself, so they are the dog’s advocate,” she said.
The study results didn’t surprise certified behaviorist and animal trainer, Russell Hartstein either. He told I Love My Dog: “Dogs provide unconditional love and many times people form stronger bonds with their pet than with another human.”
Hartstein said many of his clients take such good care of their pets, that it’s similar to how some care for their children. “From going to school for behavior and training, health, nutrition, wellness, enrichment and play, people form very close intimate bonds with their best friends.”
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