In this opinion piece feature, Why Increasing Empathy for Non-Human Animals May Not Necessarily Improve How We Treat Them, Researcher Network member, Sarah Gradidge, considers the concept of empathy and how we may promote reflection and mindfulness in vegan activism.
Often our knee-jerk common-sense reaction as vegan activists, and the focus of our activism, is to encourage empathy towards non-human animals. We make the reasonable assumption that if people feel empathy towards non-human animals, then, surely, they will no longer harm them. Yet, increasing empathy for non-human animals may not necessarily improve animal welfare.
Firstly, improving empathy for non-human animals as a whole, may not improve positive attitudes towards specific species of non-human animals. For example, a recent study of mine and my supervisors’ (Gradidge, Zawisza, Harvey, & McDermott, in preparation) found that people with greater empathy for non-human animals view dogs more positively but they do not view pigs more positively (notehowever, that this research was not causal). Other research (Caviola & Capraro, in press) indicates that the more people process in an emotional way, the more they favour dogs over pigs, whilst the more people process in a rational way, the more they favour humans over all non-human animals. This finding indicates that, whilst emotional processing (such as empathy) could improve perceptions of non-human animals as a whole, it could also increase negative perceptions of specific species of non-human animals, such as pigs.
Logically, it therefore seems important to increase empathy both for non-human animals as a whole and for specific highly discriminated-against species of non-human animals. For example, previous research has found that certain non-human animals are viewed worse than others, with more negative subsequent behavioural intentions towards them (Sevillano & Fiske, 2016), and that people feel less empathic concern for certain non-human animals (e.g., pigs) compared to other non-human animals (e.g., dogs; Gradidge, Harvey, Zawisza, & McDermott, in preparation). However, even if we improve empathy for specific species, people may be unwilling to connect their empathy with products from the species (not making the “animal-meat link”). Therefore, some people can concurrently report caring for specific non-human animals whilst continuing to consume meat from them, living in strategic ignorance (Onwezen & van der Weele, 2016). As a result, improving empathy for pigs may not necessarily mean people will equate pig products (e.g., pork, ham) with pigs’ suffering and therefore reduce their pig product consumption.
Even if people are able to both a) empathise with specific highly discriminated-against non-human animals and non-human animals as a whole, and b) make the connection between non-human animals and meat, people may still not reduce their meat consumption (even if they originally intend to). This phenomenon is known as the intention-behaviour gap (e.g., Vermeir & Verbeke, 2006). For example, people may continue to consume meat due to factors such as habit, disbelief in their ability to reduce meat consumption, or lack of knowledge of meat-free options (e.g., Macdiarmid, Douglas & Campbell, 2016), despite their original intentions to reduce meat consumption.
So, what can we learn from these research findings? Current research indicates that empathy for non-human animals may be important but not necessarily sufficient to reduce meat consumption. Empathy should therefore not be seen as the “silver bullet” for vegan activism. Further research needs to ascertain in which situations empathy is sufficient or what other factors should be accounted for, to ensure that empathy translates into direct action for non-human animals. For now, as vegan activists, we should continue to try to improve empathy for non-human animals, whilst recognising that empathy may not be the sole solution for improving animal welfare. Other factors may also need to be taken into account, such as highlighting the link between meat and non-human animals or improving peoples’ perception of their own ability to reduce meat consumption.
Disclaimer: This series of articles is based on the current knowledge base. Unfortunately, research on vegan activism is not developed enough at the present time to be able to say with certainty the most effective activist styles. Instead, this series is intended to promote thought and to encourage mindfulness in vegan activism.
Caviola, L., & Capraro, V. (forthcoming). Liking but devaluing animals: Emotional and deliberative paths to speciesism. Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Gradidge, S., & Zawisza, M. (2020). Toward a non-anthropocentric view on the environment and animal welfare: Possible psychological interventions. Animal Sentience, 27(23).
Gradidge, S., Zawisza, M., Harvey, A. J., & McDermott, D. T. (in preparation). Preferring some animals over others: Exploring the existence of pet speciesism.
Gradidge, S., Zawisza, M., Harvey, A. J., & McDermott, D. T. (in preparation). Dogs over pigs: A preliminary exploration of pet speciesism.
Kunst, J. R., & Hohle, S. M. (2016). Meat eaters by dissociation: How we present, prepare and talk about meat increases willingness to eat meat by reducing empathy and disgust. Appetite, 105, 758-774.
Macdiarmid, J. I., Douglas, F., & Campbell, J. (2016). Eating like there's no tomorrow: Public awareness of the environmental impact of food and reluctance to eat less meat as part of a sustainable diet. Appetite, 96, 487-493.
Onwezen, M. C., & van der Weele, C. N. (2016). When indifference is ambivalence: Strategic ignorance about meat consumption. Food Quality and Preference, 52, 96-105.
Sevillano, V., & Fiske, S. T. (2016). Warmth and competence in animals. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46(5), 276-293.
Vermeir, I., & Verbeke, W. (2006). Sustainable food consumption: Exploring the consumer ‘attitude-behavioural intention’ gap. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 19, 169–194.