A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Psychology of "I Am Not an Animal"

(. . . and join us at the
“I Am Not an Animal!”
symposium in Atlanta,
February 24-25, 2017.
Register here.)

“I Am Not an Animal”

It’s the signature cry of all humanity. For thousands of years, we humans have sought to see ourselves as superior to all the other animals.

How did this come to be, and how has it led to the unfolding of a Sixth Mass Extinction?

“I Am Not an Animal!” the Signature Cry of Our Species
One: What’s driving us to treat our fellow animals as commodities – even as we drive them to extinction. And why the animal protection movement can never succeed.

What Happened at the Tree of Knowledge
Two: How the birth of civilization changed our relationship to the other animals.

The Birth of Human Exceptionalism
Three: How and when we humans decided we didn’t want to think of ourselves as animals.

Taking Dominion and Subduing the Earth
Four: Nothing says “We’re superior” better than having tigers jumping through hoops.

The Psychology of “I Am Not an Animal”
Five: When we’re reminded of our mortality, we react by having a more negative view of other kinds of animals.

The Post-Human Future
Six: Finally, we ask: Where do we go from here, and is there any way out of our situation.

Video: “I Am Not an Animal” – the signature cry of our species.
Michael Mountain on why we humans need to pretend to ourselves that we’re not animals.

(Fifth in a series about our relationship to our fellow animals and why it has deteriorated to the point of an unfolding mass extinction.)

By Dr. Lori Marino 

lori-marino-cat-021015However much we like to think of ourselves as different from and superior to the other animals, we can’t escape the fact that we are, just like them, mortal, physical creatures, equally subject to the laws of nature.

The existential terror that’s caused by this ever-present knowledge has been studied at length by psychologists in the field of Terror Management Theory (TMT).

Dozens of studies have shown that when we’re reminded of our mortality, we humans tend to react by having a more negative view of other kinds of animals. It’s a reaction that’s calculated to put some distance between us and them, to treat them as lesser beings, and to reinforce the belief that, unlike them, we’re more than just animals.

One study*, for example, showed that when we’re reminded of our mortality, we react with increasing disgust toward animals and animal body processes, and are drawn to the idea that we humans are unique among all life forms. The idea that we are in some way exceptional helps assuage the anxiety over our own creatureliness.

Another study showed that reminders of our mortality make us resistant to the idea that other animals might be more intelligent in some ways than us humans. For example, people who read an article about how dolphins are more intelligent than humans showed higher levels of death-related thoughts than people who read a more general article about dolphin intelligence.

The idea that we are in some way exceptional helps assuage the anxiety over our own creatureliness.And yet another study showed that when people are reminded of the similarity between us humans and other animals, the physical aspects of sex (which we share with other animals) become less appealing than the romantic (and supposedly uniquely human) components of sexuality, like love and commitment.

Reminders of our mortality even make us feel more negative toward other humans, not just other kinds of animals. A classic example of this can be seen in how Nazi Germany’s immortality project – its claim that the Third Reich would last for a thousand years – needed to be bolstered with claims that people who weren’t ethnically “Aryan” were subhuman animals, and that getting rid of them would somehow bring about true human superiority and even the defeat of death. Thus the portrayal of Jews as rats. Similarly, White Americans often posed for “trophy photos with African Americans who had been lynched. And just generally we tend to use words like “ape”, “animal”, “monkey”, “dog”, “bitch” and “pig” to describe people who remind us of our own creatureliness and, importantly, who we want to denigrate.

And in a related study, when people who were sympathetic to right-wing authoritarian sentiments were given a reminder of their own mortality, they tended to be less supportive of violence against out-groups when the violence was portrayed as something instinctual and animalistic. In other words, since we don’t want to be thought of as animals, even just an implied connection between humans and other animals can reduce our desire to be aggressive toward other humans.

We humans are ambivalent about everything to do with the natural world. While a day in the wild can be an exhilarating and uplifting experience, the forces of nature are powerful and unpredictable. Nature is not only the giver of life; it’s also the taker of life. Not surprisingly, then, psychologists in the field of TMT have found that when we’re reminded of our mortality, we tend to prefer cultivated and artificial environments over wilderness. These controlled “natural environments” ease our anxiety about the unpredictability and danger of being an animal in “the wild”.

TMT substantiates the fact that, as a species, we are control freaks and want to “manage” everything and everyone reminding us, mostly subconsciously, of our impending death. The only solution to this dilemma is to come to terms with our animal nature. Instead, unfortunately, our species has defaulted to trying to convince ourselves that “I am not an animal” in ways that can only be destructive to ourselves and the rest of nature.

* Details and references related to the studies mentioned above can be found in the paper “Denial of Death and the Relationship between Humans and Other Animals” by Lori Marino and Michael Mountain, published in the journal Anthrozoos and available hereDr. Lori Marino is a bio-psychologist and the director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, which is devoted to transforming our relationships with other animals from exploitation to respect by combining academic scholarship with animal advocacy.

Next: The Post-Human Future .