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Why Do We Sympathize With Animal Suffering?

Keith Srakocic
AP Images
Pittsburgh police and K-9 officers gather at the funeral of Officer Rocco, who was killed last year.

If you saw a runaway bus hurtling toward a dog or a tourist, who would you save? If you chose the dog, you’re not alone.

Brent Robbins, associate professor and psychology Chair in the Department of Humanities and Human Sciences atPoint Park University, says studies of animal sympathy theories prove there are several factors that go into our decision. In the runaway bus scenario, originally conducted by psychologists at Georgia Regents University, commonalities between subjects and victims had the biggest influence in responses.  In other studies, Robbins says the “innocence and defenselessness” character of animals impact results.

But what does this say about humanity? Are people less likely to grieve another human’s death than an animal’s?

Criticism surfaced in Pittsburgh earlier this week  following the deadly shooting of Bruce T. Kelley Jr. and stabbing death of Port Authority K-9 officer Aren.  Social justice advocates, as well as members of Kelley’s family, expressed concerns that people seemed to have more sympathy for Aren’s life than Kelley’s.

One explanation, Robbins says, could be the “fundamental attribution error.” The concept plays out when we interpret the behavior of other adults, often wrongly assuming the person is responsible for the outcome of events.  Robbins likens it to "blaming the victim."

Another element influencing human behavior is what Robbins calls the “cuteness” factor of animals.

“There’s something very primal, that has a deep evolutionary history, where we have an emotional reaction to neonatal features to animals and people,” he asserts.

The easiest example of this theory can be seen on Facebook and other social media sites where kitten videos and puppy gifs dominate newsfeeds.  The same general principles apply for news media, which is accused of extensively covering stories about animals.

There might be, however, a more existential reason behind human sympathy toward animals, Robbins notes. This is due in part to  the volume of human deaths we see in the news coupled with our own “death anxiety.”  Taking a greater interest in an animal deaths is easier for us to deal with. 

“There’s enough of a distance that it doesn’t elicit our own fears about mortality.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.