A new study finds that children lack the “speciesism” bias of adults. Instead, they value (some) animal life as much as human life. This suggests that speciesism is a learned attitude.
Societies around the world tend to prioritize humans above animals. After all, we use animals for food, clothing, and medical experiments.
This preference has been demonstrated in many so-called “moral dilemma” experiments. These are hypothetical scenarios where the subject has to choose who to save, and who to let perish. Research shows that adults consistently prioritize humans in such scenarios, even if the dilemma involves sacrificing many animals to save only one human.
Similarly, one recent study found that the more “evolutionarily distant” a species is from humans, the less empathy and compassion we have for those animals.
This attitude might be due to the fact that humans are generally more intelligent than animals. But research has also shown that even in cases where severe cognitive impairment has rendered a hypothetical human less intelligent than some animals, people still value the human more. In other words, people might merely prioritize humans over animals because they are humans, a concept also known as speciesism.
Bur the researchers know less about where these attitudes come from: are they innate, or learned? In an effort to find out, a team of researchers at Yale, Harvard, and Oxford universities recently conducted a series of experiments to test whether this tendency to prioritize humans above animals is also present in children.
Dogs, pigs, and dilemmas of deontology
For the first experiment, they recruited 207 children between the ages of 5 and 9. This group had slightly more boys than girls. They also recruited 222 adult Americans via Mechanical Turk. Their average age was 37, and there were slightly more men than women.
The participants were told that two boats were sinking, and that only one of the boats could be saved. The passengers on the boats were either humans, dogs, or pigs. Variations involved boats with one member of each species, or two, or 10, or 100. The participants also had the option of not answering. They also answered questions about how intelligent and sentient they believed the humans and animals to be.
The researchers chose dogs and pigs because these animals are comparable in terms of size, behavior, and intelligence. Nonetheless, pigs are usually seen as a food animal, and as such are given a lower moral status.
The “Identifiable victim” effect
To keep things simple, the researchers also avoided giving the humans or animals names or other identities. Research into “identifiable-victim” effects has found that we value individuals with names higher than those without names. Participants might also prioritize humans more if the boat passengers were identified as children. And “many adults, we suspect, would rather save a puppy than save a boat with 10 serial killers on it,” the researchers write.
The second of the two experiments involved 61 slightly older children (aged 7 to 9), and 66 adults. This study was basically the same as the first, with the only difference being that instead of giving their own preferences, the participants indicated what they thought “Mr. X” would do. “Mr. X” was identified as someone “who always does the right thing.”
This distinction allowed the researchers to test whether the respondents were displaying their personal preferences, or whether they were indicating what they believed to be the morally correct choice.
Results: more of a dilemma for kids than adults
In both studies, most children said they would save multiple dogs over one human. Many children also chose to save one dog over one human. Children did tend to prioritize humans over pigs, but less so than the adults did.
Adults greatly prioritized humans over both dogs and pigs, even in cases of sacrificing 100 animals to save one human.
In Study 1, for example, 71% of the children prioritized saving 100 dogs over one human. In contrast. 61% of adults prioritized saving one human over 100 dogs. Likewise, 35% of children prioritized saving one human over one dog, and 28% of children actually prioritized one dog over one human (the rest could not decide). The results were slightly weaker for pigs; 57% of the children prioritized one human over one pig, and only 18% prioritized one pig over one human.
Interestingly, although 85% of the adults prioritized one human over one dog, and 93% prioritized one human over one pig, 8% actually prioritized the dog, and 3% prioritized the pig.
Sentience and intelligence aren’t enough
Children and adults both indicated that humans are more intelligent and sentient than dogs, and dogs are more intelligent and sentient than pigs (which is probably incorrect). Nonetheless, children and adults had different judgments about which was more worth saving. And this suggests “that perceived intelligence and sentience [do] not fully account for moral judgments,” the authors write.
The children’s prioritization of humans above animals did not increase with age; it was as prevalent in the 5-year-olds as it was in the 9-year-olds. But older adults did have a stronger humans-over-dogs preference than younger adults. This might be “a reflection of a generational shift in attitudes toward animal welfare,” the authors write.
Moral issues: what is the source of our speciesism?
Why do adults prioritize humans over animals? One possibility is that this preference is innate, similar to humans’ preference for tribe members over strangers. And because humans’ in-group favoritism emerges in toddlers, one would expect that the tendency to prioritize humans over animals also emerges early.
But this study found that children are much less likely than adults to prioritize humans above animals, suggesting that this attitude only emerges later in life. “Adolescents,” the authors write, “may learn and internalize the socially held speciesist notion” that humans are more special.
This could be in part because young children, at least in developed countries, usually see animals in a highly positive and anthropomorphized form (i.e. pets and cartoons), and are often unaware of things like of meat production or animal experimentation. Future studies could investigate whether speciesism emerges earlier in cultures where young children “have more direct exposure to instrumental uses of animals.”
Future directions for research into speciesism
The authors acknowledge that using animals other than dogs and pigs would probably yield different results in different cultures (think, for example, of holy cows).
Likewise, adults and children alike would probably express less empathy for scary or unpopular animals like spiders or rats, and perhaps more for chimpanzees. Another limitation is the use of purely hypothetical dilemmas, rather than real-life choices.
In sum, the authors write, this research “challenges the notion that the tendency to morally prioritize humans is a completely ingrained moral intuition unrelated to social norms.” The findings are also at odds with “the view held by many philosophers and psychologists that children have an initially narrow ‘moral circle’ that they gradually expand over development.”
Instead, these findings suggest that the speciesist view may “be socially acquired and, thus, potentially malleable.”
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Study: “Children Prioritize Humans Over Animals Less Than Adults Do”
Authors: Matti Wilks, Lucius Caviola, Guy Kahane, and Paul Bloom
Published in: Psychological Science
Publication date: December 15, 2020
Photo: by David Mark via Pixabay