Is speciesism inevitable? Lessons from early development

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» Is speciesism inevitable? Lessons from early development

In this autumn edition of The Expert Series, RAC member, Dr Jared Piazza asks if speciesism is inevitable, looking to early childhood for answers.

If you were to offer a young child two options, an exciting action figure or a hamster, which would you expect the child to prefer? Research suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that the child would prefer to play with the hamster [1]. The fact is that most children love animals. And this early fascination with animals is not limited to cuddly animals, like hamsters, but extends to all sorts, including reptiles and insects.

Now, if you were to offer the same child two options for lunch: Moroccan-spiced vegetable couscous or chicken fingers, Id wager that most children, at least in the Western world, would opt for the chicken fingers.

For adults who have cultivated sympathy for the plight of broiler chickens, there is a moral dilemma at the heart of this choice that is largely lost on a two-year-old who remains enviously naïve about the horrors of animal farming. But children arent the only ones who fail to notice the tension at the heart of our relationship with animals. Many adults will, for example, at an aquarium stare amazed at the beauty of aquatic life, while feeling nothing for the fish dangling on a hook that winds up as fillet on their dinner plate. 

Psychologists call this the meat paradox” [2]. From a very early age we are intrigued by animals. We love to watch them, learn about them, interact with them. But at the same time, we use animals, and often push their interests aside, to fulfil our own desires and advance the interests of our own kind.  

Prioritising our own kind

There are lots of factors that perpetuate the meat paradox. One key factor that has gained a lot of attention from philosophers and psychologists is speciesism.

Speciesism is when you give someone special treatment simply because they share the same species membership as you, or, conversely, when you ignore the interests of someone simply because they are from a different species. Ethicists, such as Peter Singer, have criticised speciesism as a form of prejudice not unlike racism or sexism. Singer writes: Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species” [3: Animal Liberation, p. 9].

Thankfully, we have grown as a species to patrol for and condemn racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, and other sorts of prejudice and discrimination when we see it—though, of course, we still have a long way to go in redressing these prejudices in society. We are less conscious of speciesism as a form of prejudice, perhaps because we are not raised to notice it. 

The problem with speciesism is that humans use it to justify the subordination of animal interests to our own. The underlying assumption is that human interests matter more than animals. Helping your neighbour because they are a person is not speciesism. Dismissing the suffering of chickens because they are not humans would be.

The belief that human interests matter more is a fundamental driver of human behaviour. Plenty of research backs up the idea that people are mundane speciesists. In everyday life, we prioritise the interests of our own species over that of other species [4, 5]. This finding may be so obvious that doing research on the topic seems like a foregone conclusion. Look no further than the innumerable ways in which we put human interests ahead of animals when we displace animals from their homes to build homes for people, cull wildlife that interfere with our financial interests, subject animals to hardship so we can enjoy meals with meat. The list goes on.  

Speciesism may seem like a core human belief, one that is very difficult to override. Yet, some recent research from developmental psychology suggests that speciesism may not be as fundamental as we suppose.

Becoming speciesists

Recent studies by Dr. Matti Wilks and her colleagues suggest that speciesism may not be something that we are born believing. It is something that we learn. We are not native speciesists, but become speciesists as we mature.

It is important to point out that these studies have not yet looked at speciesism in infancy, before children can speak. So there still is a lot to learn about the earliest origins of speciesism. Most of what we currently know is based on studies with children and adolescence. And what we have learned is that children as young as five years of age tend to be much less speciesist than adults.

Wilks and her colleagues showed this using hypothetical moral dilemmas where children and adults had to decide whether to save a human life or an animal life - in this case, a dog or a pig [6]. The dilemmas were set up as tragic zero-sums, where at least one life would be lost to save another, for example, from a sinking boat.

The clever twist to the design was that the researchers varied the ratio of human lives to animal lives that could be saved, for example, saving 1 human life but losing 1 dog or 1 pig, or saving 1 human life but losing 10 or even 100 dog or pig lives. (The reverse weightings were also tested, e.g., saving 1 dog or pig life but losing 10 or 100 human lives.)

What they found was that the vast majority of adults reported they would save a human over a dog or pig, when the ratio was 1:1. However, this was not the case for children. They were fairly split over saving the animal vs. human; in fact, one-third of them could not decide whom to save.  Furthermore, unlike the adults whose preferences for humans hardly changed as the ratio of animals saved increased, children behaved more like impartial utilitarians. They tended to let the numbers dictate whom to save, irrespective of species membership.

Thus, in stark contrast to adults, children as young as five, did not automatically favour humans over animals when the interests of humans and animals matched and were in direct conflict.

This is not to say that children are not biased in other ways towards animals. In fact, childrens preferences for specific animals reflect many of the same biases observed in adults, for example, preferring cute animals to less cute animals [7], popular animals to less popular animals [8], and mammals over non-mammals [9].

Valuing animals for animalsown sake

One consequence of being less speciesist is that children tend to value animals less for what they offer humans, and more for their own sake and the properties they possess. 

Philosophers, like Immanuel Kant, draw a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic moral standing, or valuing an entity for its own sake rather than because a person derives value from it [10]. For example, one might argue that horses have moral standing because they are exquisite and sensitive beings, and not because they provide humans entertainment or a more efficient way to move around.

In a recent study led by my PhD student, Heather Henseler Kozachenko, we found support for the idea that children may be less inclined than adults to value animals extrinsically, i.e., for what they offer humans [11].

We wanted to determine what properties children value when making life-saving decisions of the sort used in Wilkss studies. We had children ages 6 to 11 perform a medicine allocation task where they had a limited amount of medicine to save 19 different animals, including a human. The task was to decide in what order to save the 19 lives.

Before completing this medicine task, children first rated each animal on a series of dimensions, including their level of intelligence, ability to feel pain, attractiveness, dangerousness, and similarity to humans. Children also judged whether people, somewhere, eat the animal and how yummy the meat would be. Finally, childrens answers were compared with those of adults, who were given the exact same tasks.

The main question of interest was, how did children and adults differ in the dimensions they valued in the different entities they wished to save?

There were numerous differences between how children and adults approached the tasks. One of the most noteworthy differences was that younger children (ages 6-8) tended to value more intrinsic properties, such as the aesthetic qualities of an animal or its benevolent temperament. By contrast, older children (ages 9-11) and adults tended to value properties that provided utility to humans. For example, they were more inclined to save animals that provided food for humans or that were perceived to share qualities with humans. Adults, more than children, put a premium on intelligence—a quality they perceived to be the hallmark feature of being human.

Though our findings suggest that children were less anthropocentric (human-centric”) about the animals they saved, our results may be partly explained by younger childrens lack of knowledge about how people use animals as food. While most adults in our study understood, for example, that people somewhere in the world eat sharks (e.g., shark-fin soup), children did not yet grasp this. Indeed, chickens and pigs were really the only animals that younger children reliably understood to be used as food - 91% and 80% understood this, respectively. 

Thus, it would be naïve to conclude that children are less speciesist than adults simply because their orientation to animals is less instrumental or human-centric. That is indeed true, but the reason for this may partly be due to childrens incomplete understanding of the ways in which we use animals in society.

Can we be less speciesist?

Pablo Picasso is quoted saying that Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Im not sure how true this statement is when it comes to childrens artistic abilities, but Id like to use it to make an analogous statement: Every child is an animal enthusiast. The problem is how to remain an animal enthusiast once we grow up.” 

If the research discussed here is correct, then our trajectory as we develop is to (a) value animals less relative to our own kind (i.e., be more speciesist), and (b) value animals less for their own sake (i.e., be more anthropocentric). This is a troubling situation if we want to improve the lives of animals on this planet. So, what can we do about it?

Certainly, there is still a lot we dont know about why speciesism tends to increase in the transition from childhood to adolescence.  Part of the story seems to be that adolescents are more cognisant of the ways we use animals, at least for food. Sadly, awareness of animal exploitation in the domain of eating does not always translate into greater concern for animals, since many of the ways we exploit animals are integrated into the norms of society [12]. When children learn that animals are slaughtered to make food, they have generally been eating animals for many years [13], and we know from psychological research that it is easier to accept and defend the norms around us than to confront and abandon them. Furthermore, when it comes to food, familiarity breeds contentment.” What is familiar and normal, generally feels good and right [14].

There might also be motivational underpinnings to speciesism development. Adolescence is a period in which there is heightened attention to social identity concerns and fitting into a peer group [15]. Thus, there may be less attention and energy devoted to learning about and caring for animals during this period.

Figuring out the reasons promoting the development of speciesism will help us address it at its roots. But for now, might there be lessons to draw from childhood about how to counter our speciesist impulses? 

Two lessons from childhood

One potential lesson may be to approach animals with less concern for how they benefit us and try to see the beauty and wonder of animal lives untainted by our own standards of excellence.

Ironically, when we try to understand animals from their own point of view, we are often surprised by how similar they are to us. For example, I recently read Jonathan Balcombes wonderful book What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins and learned about the many intriguing things that fish do. The book is filled with research on fish behaviour, and the many insights Balcombe offers provide readers with a vantage for better understanding the motives, capacities, and intelligences of our aquatic cousins.

As I read the book, I found myself, instinctively, comparing what fish do, with human behaviour. It was nearly impossible for me to not draw such comparisons, and the more commonalities I noticed, the more endearing fish became. Similar experiences have been documented by pet owners [16, 17] and young people who interact with wild animals [18].

There is an irony here. When we try to understand animals within their own world, on their own terms, we may inevitably bring animals closer to us. And, possibly, by bringing animals closer, we may erode the justifications for elevating our own species above others [19, 20]. Favouritism for our own kind feels more arbitrary as the perceived distance between us and them” dissolves.  

One final lesson may be to attempt to have more honest conversations with our children about the ways in which we use and mistreat animals. This can be hard to do when we dont notice the mistreatment ourselves. The adults in our developmental study [11] had greater insights than children into which animals are eaten, but the adults didnt necessarily encode the act of eating animals as exploitation.

Young children may also need the support of parents and adults to better grasp key aspects of animal sentience and intelligence, such as the processes by which animals feel pain and suffering. We found that young children struggled with the concept of sentience and tended to use a misleading body-size heuristic to guide their understanding of which animals suffer most (children incorrectly assumed larger animals like elephants had less capacity for pain than smaller animals like worms) [11].

Children receive mixed messages about the status of animals in society, which can confuse matters further. In childrens literature and television, animals are often anthropomorphized, that is, they are portrayed as facing challenges more befitting humans than animals, like how to handle being teased at school. Few books depict animals in an honest way that teaches children about the tough realities of animal agriculture. [For more about this topic on how animals are presented to children, see our recent PHAIR Society interview with Dr. Anastassiya Andrianova.]

If children lack knowledge of the ways animals suffer and are mistreated by humans, and if actions, like eating animals, go unchallenged by the adults in childrens lives, its unlikely that they will come to challenge the behaviours themselves, not when eating animal products is the prevailing societal norm.

But imagine switching on the non-speciesist mind of a child to the unnecessary exploitation of animals in the food industry before they are socialised into uncritical acceptance. That could be something potentially world changing.   

Dr. Jared Piazza, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Lancaster University and member of The Vegan Societys Research Advisory Committee.

Email: j.piazza[at][dot]uk

Twitter: @jared_piazza


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[2] Loughnan, S., Bratanova, B., & Puvia, E. (2012). The Meat Paradox: How are we able to love animals and love eating animals. In-Mind Italia, 1, 15-18.

[3] Singer, P. (2002). Animal liberation. New York: Ecco.

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[5] Dhont, K., Hodson, G., & Leite, A. C. (2016). Common idealogical roots of speciesism and generalized ethnic prejudice: The social dominance human-animal relations model (SD-HARM). European Journal of Personality, 30(6), 507-522.

[6] Wilks, M., Caviola, L., Kahane, G., & Bloom, P. (2021). Children prioritize humans over animals less than adults do. Psychological Science, 32(1), 27-38.

[7] Borgi, M., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Childrens preferences for infantile features in dogs and cats. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1(2), 1-15.

[8] Borgi, M., & Cirulli, F. (2016). Pet face: Mechanisms underlying human animal relationships. Frontiers in Psychology.

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[10] Schönfeld, M. (1992). Who or what has moral standing? American Philosophical Quarterly, 29(4), 353-362.

[11] Henseler Kozachenko, H., & Piazza, J. (2021). How children and adults value different animal lives. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 210, 105204.

[12] Bastian, B., & Loughnan, S. (2017). Resolving the meat-paradox: A motivational account of morally troublesome behaviour and its maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(3), 278-299.

[13] Bray, H. J., Zambrano, S. C., Chur-Hansen, A., & Ankeny, R. A. (2016). Not appropriate dinner table conversation? Talking to children about meat production. Appetite, 100, 1-9.

[14] Piazza, J. (2020). Why people love animals yet continue to eat them. In K. Dhont and G. Hodson, Why people love and exploit animals: Bridging insights from academia and advocacy (pp. 229-244). Abingdon, UK: Routledge

[15] Tanti, C., Stukas, A. A., Halloran, M. J., & Foddy, M. (2011). Social identity change: Shifts in social identity during adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 34(3), 555-567.

[16] Possidónio, C., Piazza, J., Graça, J., & Prada, M. (2021). From pets to pests: Testing the scope of the Pets as Ambassadors” hypothesis. Anthrozoös.

[17] Epley, N., Schroeder, J., & Waytz, A. (2013). Motivated mind perception: Treating pets as people and people as animals. In S. J. Gervais (Ed.), Objectification and (de)humanization (pp. 127-152). New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

[18] Ballouard, J.-M., Ajtic, R., Balint, H.,…& Bonnet, X. (2013). Schoolchildren and one of the most unpopular animals: Are they ready to protect snakes?  Antrozoös, 26(1), 93-109.

[19] Bastian, B., Costello, K., Loughnan, S., & Hodson, G. (2012). When closing the human-animal divide expands moral concern: The importance of framing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(4), 421-429.

[20] Amiot, C. E., Sukhanova, K., Greenway, K. H., & Bastian, B. (2017). Does human-animal similarity lower the need to affirm humanssuperiority relative to animals? A social psychological viewpoint. Anthrozoös, 30(3), 499-516.


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