Animal Concern: Emotion or Reason?

Here's an interesting study of the psychology behind concern for animals.  Herzog and Golden tried to find out what role disgust plays in making people animal activists or vegetarians.  They hypothesized that it should play a major role based on Jonathan Haidt's model of moral psychology.  On that model, people have immediate intuitions, colored by disgust and other emotions, and reason comes in as an afterthought.  We rationalize what are really gut level reactions.  So--is that true or false, in the case of people's concern for animals (or lack thereof)?

The authors gathered data from social networking sites like Facebook, dividing study participants into three groups--(1) self-described animal activists they found at animal rights sites, (2) promoters of animal use they found at pro-research sites (and the like), and (3) non-aligned people they found at sites chosen randomly.

Besides finding the answer to their question, they found out some interesting things.  42% of the animal activists were not vegetarians.  The authors say this meshes the finding that 40% were meat-eaters at the 1990 March for Animals. (Vegetarians were defined as non-meat eaters; there was no separate category for vegans.)

On the other hand, 48% of the vegetarians were not animal activists.  Many of them were vegetarians for environmental and health reasons, not for moral reasons. 

As to emotion and reason:  the researchers found that the animal activists scored higher on a general test for disgust sensitivity. They were generally more prone to "yuck" reactions.  That makes a lot of sense to me.  I do trace my initial interest in animal issues to seeing pictures and videos that elicited a strong disgust reaction.

However--big surprise--disgust sensitivity was not a predictor of vegetarianism.  The authors used the Animal Attitude Scale to measure participants' beliefs about animals and ethics.  Their scores did strongly predict whether they ate meat.

What does all this show? Well, a bunch of things.  That beliefs do matter, so people who teach and write about animals are not wasting their time.  That it's a mistake to draw lines between advocates and non-advocates based on who eats what.  That alliances are crucial--environmental and other concerns can draw people toward animal-friendly behavior.

Most interesting, maybe, is that meat-eating is a hard behavior to change--people don't find it disgusting. In light of that, it seems completely wrong-headed to make abstinence the price of admission to the animal movement.  I am reminded of a student I had in my Animal Rights class recently.  Her family had built the downtown animal shelter.  After I learned that, I met her father at a bookstore--we had both come to see PETA president Ingrid Newkirk give a talk.  He wanted to chat about cattle ranching and hunting. 

It's a funny world. We must not draw too many lines.


Faust said...

The New Vegan movement: yet another round of people who believe in abstinence only education?

That study is interesting. Lots of data in there. The fact that AAS is more strongly predictive of meat eating than raw disgust doesn't really undercut Haidt's model though, since it allows for many emotions other than disgust.

The disgust scale in question is pretty general, and focuses on viceral disgust. It seems to me that this kind of reactive disgust is of a different order than emotions like empathy or compassion or sympathy. I would like to see a correlative study that measures not digust but empathic emotions. Indeed, I think the AAS stands in pretty well as an (limited) empathy test rather than a "reason" test. I don't really see "reason" being tested anywhere in that study.

I'll take a second look through though.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, abstinence only! If we tell the kids anything else they'll think we want them to eat meat.

I wondered the same thing. Maybe high-disgust correlates with generally having strong emotions. What's driving the activist, disgust or sympathy?

It really may be disgust because many of the pictures and videos used by advocacy groups are disgusting. They show sick animals being beaten, talk about cattle being fed cement dust...and stuff that elicits a strong "yuck" reaction. Then again, other images elicit just plain sympathy.

Faust said...

Well for me it's a sympathy reaction. I do find this stuff disgusting. But most of the emotions I experience in the vicinity of this issue are what I would call "horror" which is qualitatively different than disgust, and "sympathy."

Unlike a lot of people who are sympathetic to AR concerns I'm a lot less certain about how that suffering works (it's not at all clear to me that the suffering of an ant is the same as the suffering of a fish is the same as the suffering of a cow is the same as the suffering of pig is the same as the suffering of a monkey is the same as the suffering of a human).

But that it's there at all really worries me. I find the programatic nature of our cruelty to be disturbing, and I do not like this idea that we are systematicaly torturing sentient beings.

But it's not centrally digust that motvates me (to the degree that I am motivated). It's the possiblity that they feel suffering that is at least in some sense like ours that makes me want to avoid being part of programatically causing it.

I think one of most severe dangers of the agribusiness industry is that it has divorced us from emotional consequences of eating animals.

It's like that trolly experiment: 5 people on 1 track 1 on another. It's going to hit the 5 people but you have a switch that will shunt it over to the 1. Would it be better to hit the switch or do nothing? Most people say: hit the switch.

Same scenario, but now instead of a switch you must push someone in front of the train. If you do, by hypothesis, you will sacrifice one person to save 5, just as with the switch, but now you must push someone in front of the train to do it. Most people say: don't push them.

Strangely, if instead of pushing them, you can pull a lever that drops them in front of the train, the number of people who say "pull the lever" goes up.

To me the agribusiness industry is like that lever. It divorces you from having to confront what you are doing. You just pick up the meat at the store. It has no relation to anything other than shopping trips. (Same can be said of most consumer goods).

Of course a hardcore utilitarian analysis suggests that you SHOULD push the guy in front of the train. So in this case the emotions are (on one view) telling you to do the wrong thing. Ah utilitarianism.

s. wallerstein said...

Meat, especially raw meat, has always disgusted me a little, and that has nothing to do with the sufferings of animals. I'm the type of person who could not study human anatomy. However, reading about factory farming and animal rights in general has certainly given me more and perhaps better reasons not to eat meat.

Holly Heyser said...

Interesting - I'm glad you brought this study to my attention and I'm looking forward to reading it.

I'm a hunter who loathes factory farms and has a pretty high level of empathy for animals - and I have plenty of friends just like me. We don't like animal suffering, but we eat meat, and we are willing to take personal responsibility for it.

While I'm glad you welcome meat eaters into the ranks of animal rights advocates, I must say that people who eat meat but tell me I shouldn't hunt have ZERO credibility with me. Delegating their slaughtering and butchering to a third party to keep their hands clean is not a mark of animal-friendly moral superiority; it's just denial.

Also, for what it's worth, I just took the AAS survey and scored myself at 2.8, though I was a little surprised how many times my answers were 5's.

And while I'm not a social scientist, I must say that some of the questions really missed the mark for me.

Example: "The slaughter of whales and dolphins should be immediately stopped even if it means people will be put out of work." Well, stopped why? My measure of when it's OK to kill animals is primarily 1) will you make all possible use of them or will you waste them? If they'll be wasted, don't kill them. And 2) will killing these animals contribute to the demise of their species? If it will, don't kill them.

Another example: "It is morally wrong to hunt wild animals just for sport." Sport hunting is a term to distinguish what I do from commercial market hunting, which is no longer allowed. But I, and the vast majority of sport hunters, eat what we kill. Different understandings of what this term means has contributed to a lot of confusion on the subject.

In other words, it struck me that the statements designed to tap into "my side" of this debate did not really capture my thinking, while the statements designed to tap into the animal rights side seemed very consistent with what I hear from animal rights activists.

My two cents. Thanks for the forum!

rtk said...

NorCal: my understanding of sport hunting is different from yours. Going for the antlers and ignoring the meat is how I would define it. Otherwise I do agree with you. I deplore animal farming; I treasure hunted meat, always hoping of course that the animal truly was the weaker of the herd, destined to starve slowly if the hunter did not hasten its demise.

My experience with all hunters - no exceptions - is that they are ecological minded and very much in tune with the animal world. Whereas the vegans I have the displeasure of knowing were a bunch of food nazis, extremists with no understanding or sympathy for others, whether they be human animals or four footed or gilled.

Alex Chernavsky said...

Jean wrote: "42% of the animal activists were not vegetarians. [...] What does all this show? [...] That it's a mistake to draw lines between advocates and non-advocates based on who eats what."

I do not think that your conclusion follows logically from the data. You seem to be confusing "is" with "ought". There is no doubt that the animal "movement" (such as it is) consists mostly of non-vegans. The question remains, though, whether this fact ultimately helps the animals or hurts them.

My own view (and this shouldn't surprise regular readers) is that non-vegans in the movement do nothing but confuse the issue, play into the hands of industry, and ultimately re-entrench the institutional exploitation of sentient creatures. I, for one, would be only too happy if all the non-vegan "activists" found another cause to pursue.

And on a related matter: Could we please stop confusing and conflating vegetarianism and veganism? There is no moral difference between eating a steak on the one hand vs. eating an egg or drinking a glass of milk on the other hand. In fact, one can make a plausible case that meat-eating is (slightly) less problematic than eating eggs or dairy products. Dairy cows and egg-laying hens probably suffer more than beef steers. And the dairy industry is closely linked to the veal industry. Any exploitation of animals is unjustified, and I confess to being more irritated by ovo-lacto-vegetarians than by unabashed omnivores.

Faust said...

"and I confess to being more irritated by ovo-lacto-vegetarians that claim a moral high ground than by unabashed omnivores."

Fixed that for you.

Melissa said...

"There is no moral difference between eating a steak on the one hand vs. eating an egg ..."

I beg to differ on this. I've known lots of people who keep chickens as pets. There is most certainly a "moral difference" between eating an egg from one of these chickens and eating a steak. Of course factory-farming is another issue.

Vegetarian/Vegan Terminology:

There are vegetarians who may or may not consume eggs. There are also vegetarians who may or may not consume dairy. There are vegetarians who abstain from eating dairy, eggs, meat, but consume honey.

I was a strict vegan for a few years (though for various reasons I never identified myself as such.)

But as a self-identified vegetarian, I confess to being mildly irritated by people who are irritated by ovo-lacto-vegetarians, or ovo-vegetarians, or lacto-vegetarians, or semi-lacto-ovo vegetarians, or any breed of vegetarian.

Indeed, if it were not for "semi-vegetarians" there would most likely not be as many vegetarian and vegan products available. (Incidentally, a product may be egg-free, dairy-free, meat-free and still not be "vegan certified." According to the Vegan Society, honey is not vegan. Is anyone irritated by self-described vegans who consume honey?

Anyway, this is a fabulous blog and Jean's writing is brilliant.

Jean Kazez said...

NorCal, I'm with you on almost everything you say, but just have a problem with this killing business. I wish I could believe Michael Pollan when he talks about respectful killing, but I'm afraid I can't. There's the animal, enjoying life, and the hunter puts an end to it. This might be no worse than buying meat at the store, and in fact better (the animal got to have a better life), but I just can't relate to the decision to pull the trigger. I glanced at that AAS survey but must have another look.

Alex, As a vegetarian, I am NOT eating about 25 chickens a year. That's 25 fewer chickens facing a miserable life and then death. Yes, I could have also saved one or two more chickens by not eating eggs, but I can't for the life of me see why it was just nothing to save the 25 chickens. Don't they matter?

Bashing vegetarians is as silly as bashing someone who gives $1000 instead of $2000 to Oxfam, or someone who adopts 3 dogs from a shelter instead of 4. It's just irrational.

Also, I do agree with Melissa (thanks for the kind words, Melissa!)--it's not true that an egg is an egg is an egg. Vegetarians make lots of different choices about what to eat besides vegetables, if they're not prepared to be 100% vegan.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks for responding, Jean.

The decision to pull the trigger is a somber one - I don't enjoy watching animals die (though I admit I do have classic hunter reactions when I'm successful, because success is never automatic). I just know I love meat and I'm not going to give it up, so I'm willing to do what has to be done. It's definitely not for everyone.

As someone who's pro-hunting, I loved what Alex said, which should make him very nervous. Six percent of Americans hunt; 0.5 percent are vegan. Go ahead and reduce the ranks of animal advocates to 0.5 percent and see where that gets you. Ideological purity is rarely a successful strategy - particularly when that purity requires a dietary regimen that many people have a hard time sticking to. But if you're anti-hunting, Alex, I'm very happy to see you pursue that strategy.

The more pressing question to me is how can we all exert pressure from our various vantage points to get rid of factory farming, which many hunters and vegans alike can agree is abominable? There are many individual choices we can make - whether going vegan or raising backyard chickens humanely - that can improve animals' lot.

Jean Kazez said...

NorCal--That way of describing the moment of pulling the trigger is helpful. I get a lot of hunters in my Animal Rights class and I've heard many different kinds of talk about that moment. I've also watched promotional videos for "Safari International." Some of what I see/hear just makes hunters sound like they find killing itself thrilling. But then I get these folks who seem not like that at all...so it is all bewildering. I have also found some of my hunters extremely repulsed by factory farming. So (as I say)--we shouldn't draw too many lines.