We love our dogs, and we all consider them members of the family.
It may come as no surprise to you, then, that a recent study found that humans are likely more empathetic toward pets than they are toward people.
We take care of their medical needs, buy them presents and make sure that their every want is attended to — sometimes even ahead of our own.
The Empathy Study
A study recently published in Society and Animals, bears out the theory that people care more about dogs than they care about other people. In the study, 256 university undergrads were asked to rate their empathy level for 4 victims: a puppy, an adult dog, a human infant and a human adult. In each scenario, the victim was the subject of a beating (don’t worry — the scenarios were fabricated for the study).
The researchers hypothesized that “the vulnerability of victims — determined by their age and not species — would determine participants’ levels of distress and concern for them.” In short, the researchers figured that the puppy and the infant would come in first in terms of empathy.
Unsurprisingly, the test subjects responded with the most empathy toward the puppy and the human infant. What was a surprise is that the adult dog scored almost as high in empathy, leaving the adult human dead last.
The Scenario Study
The results of the empathy study were unlikely a surprise to researchers Richard Topolski, J. Nicole Weaver, Zachary Martin and Jason McCoy. In 2011, they conducted a study to find out what might happen when people are asked to choose between their pets and another human being.
A diverse range of about 573 people between the ages of 18 and 75 were given a hypothetical scenario and asked to make a choice. The scenario involved placing 2 lives — those of a human being and an animal — in imminent danger. Those taking the test were told that there was not enough time to save both lives and were asked to choose, and 40% of individuals stated they would save their pet over a stranger.
However, there were some other variables. If the animal in the scenario was not the individual’s pet, roughly 12% responded that they would save the animal over the person. If the human in the scenario was a loved one, only 2% stated they would save the animal rather than the person.
The Expression Study
A study published in Scientific Reports in 2017 found that dogs alter their facial expressions in response to their humans. Researchers found that when we interact with our dogs, even just by facing them, our dogs will change their facial expressions in response as well as their vocalizations. We don’t just live with our pets; we communicate with them, and they communicate back, forming a relationship.
This study also had a startling finding: Dogs in shelters that raised their inner eyebrows more often were rehomed faster than other dogs. “This could be for 2 possible reasons,” say the researchers. “Firstly, AU101 [inner eyebrow raise] resembles a facial movement which in humans indicates sadness, hence potentially making humans feels more empathetic towards dogs that produce this movement more. Another possibility is that the AU101 lets the eyes of the dogs appear bigger and more infant-like, potentially tapping into the preference of humans for paedomorphic characteristics and/or humans innate tendency to respond to ostensive cues, one of which is ‘eyebrow raising.’”
So if you insist your dog is responding to you when you look at them, you’re not crazy — you’re right.
Pets Really Are Our Furbabies
Finally, one last study proves that many of us see our pets as part of the family. A 2014 study published in PLOS One tested women’s reactions to their pets and their children and found startlingly similar responses.
The 14 women in the study were placed in an MRI and shown pictures of their children and dogs who had been part of the family for more than 2 years. In each instance, many of the same areas of the women’s brains brain were activated, particularly those involving emotion and reward processing, when the photos were shown. The researchers’ conclusion was that while dogs may not be our children, they’re close.
Watch this news item about this very topic:
Overall results from these studies and others like them seem to conclude that we humans view pets or animals with as much empathy as we view human infants. And while we empathize with other adult humans, generally, we could conclude that we humans tend to equate innocence and vulnerability with the need for our empathy.
Whether or not we love our pets more than other people also likely depends on our lifestyle and interpersonal relationships. Someone who lives alone without any family and just their pets for company is probably going to choose to save their pet over another person. Another person who has a large, close-knit family with strong interpersonal relationships may choose differently.
But 1 thing is clear: We sure love our pets.