Nov
1
2017

You read a news story about a vicious attack on a helpless victim by a bat-wielding assailant.  Of course, you’re horrified.

But just how horrified are you?

It depends on who the victim is, according to a study published in the journal Society & Animals.

Researchers gave 240 students from Northeastern University four fictional news stories. Each described a police report about an attack “With a baseball bat by an unknown assailant.” The stories continued: “Arriving on the scene a few minutes after the attack, the police officer found the victim with one broken leg, multiple lacerations, and unconscious.

Here’s the twist: the victim changed in each story. Depending on the version, the victim was a one-year-old baby, a man in his 30s, a puppy, or a six-year-old dog.

After the students read the stories, researchers asked them to describe their emotions, using a standard set of questions designed to measure empathy. The students who read the report where the victim was a child, dog or puppy all expressed similar levels of empathy.

The guy in his 30s didn’t get nearly the same love.

The Study reports that “Respondents were significantly less distressed when adult humans were victimized, in comparison with human babies, puppies, and adult dogs.”

This didn’t come as a big surprise to the researchers. “We hypothesized that the vulnerability of victims—determined by their age and not species—would determine participants levels of distress and concern,” they wrote.

In other words, researchers expected people to be more upset when the victim was younger—a baby or a puppy—than when the victim was older.

Lead researcher and study co-author Jack Levin, professor emeritus at Northeastern University and co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict, told a meeting of the American Sociological Association: “The fact adult human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full-grown dog victims suggests adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids.”

The Northeastern study seems to back up the results of a similar experiment conducted two years ago in the United Kingdom.

A medical research charity called Harrison’s Fund ran two ads online. Both asked the same question: “Would you give five pounds to save Harrison from a slow, painful death?”

The twist this time: In one of the ads, Harrison was a human boy. In the other he was a dog.

Guess who got more clicks?

If you picked the dog, you’re right. That ad got twice as many clicks as the one with the boy.

The Northeastern study may indicate why. Co-author Levin and his colleagues suggest that their research showed two things. First, “Subjects did not view their dogs as animals, but rather as . . . family members alongside human children.”

Second, that feelings of empathy may be related to the perceived helplessness of the victim: "It appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves, while full-grown dogs are just seen as larger puppies," Levin said.

 

Either way, when it comes to getting empathy, dogs and babies have the edge.

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