Writing in the journal Society & Animals, the team from Northeastern University Boston and the University of Colorado Boulder gathered 256 undergraduate students together and then presented them with fake news reports of attacks on either a 1-year-old baby, a 30-year-old adult, a young puppy, or a 6-year-old dog.
As it turned out, the levels of empathy reported for the baby, the puppy, and the dog were on par with one another; the adult victim was empathized with, but to a lesser degree.
The inspiration from the study partly came about due to the attention a rather controversial case was getting on social media. A pit bull mauled a 4-year-old boy in Phoenix, Arizona back in 2014, leaving him with serious injuries that needed reconstructive surgery.
The dog was threatened with euthanasia, and a campaign was set up to save him from this fate. Within a few weeks, Mickey the dog’s Facebook page had more than 40,000 likes, whereas the page supporting the boy had around 500.
Another case involved a charity advertisement, one which used a stock photo of a dog, and one which used a photograph of a real boy who was suffering from a form of muscular dystrophy. The fundraising campaign gained twice as many clicks when the image of the dog was used in their adverts.
Based on this study, the authors suspect that a good way to engender humane attitudes in groups of people is to emphasize the vulnerability of the victims.
“By emphasizing shared vulnerability, rather than focusing on exposure to violence and aggression, innovative programs could reshape the treatment and prevention of animal abuse,” they concluded.