A research study (“Are People More Disturbed by Dog or Human Suffering?”) investigated whether people would be more upset by reports of dogs suffering or by reports of people suffering. To explore the question, 240 undergraduate students were asked to report how empathetic they felt in response to hearing about an individual who was brutally beaten. The descriptions of the assaults were made-up news reports that were identical except for the identity of the victims, of which there were four: a 30-year old person, a one-year infant, a six-year old dog and a puppy. The news report described a situation with a series of attacks, including “one particularly vicious assault” with a baseball bat that resulted in finding the unconscious victim with one broken leg and multiple lacerations.
The type of victim did influence the amount of empathy reported by the participants in the study. Age made the biggest difference, with a significantly higher degree of empathy being expressed for the child and the puppy compared with the amount expressed towards the adults of either species. There was a greater degree of empathy for the infant than for the adult dog, and the lowest amount of empathy was felt towards the adult human. In other words, people were more empathetic to an infant or a dog of any age than to the adult human. It is possible that the amount of helplessness that the subjects of the study projected towards the victims influenced how empathetic they felt towards them.
It’s quite a profound result even if it is hardly surprising to most of us. A key takeaway from this study is that empathy can break from the usual pattern because of our close relationship with dogs. It is far more common for people to feel empathetic to individuals who are more like them than those who differ from them, and yet in this case, being from a different species did not prevent people from feeling greater empathy for dogs of any age than for the adult human.