“I Am Not an Animal!”
February 24 – 25, 2017
Part of a series of short video backgrounders for the upcoming “I Am Not an Animal” symposium.
I consider myself a reasonably enlightened advocate for the protection of all animals. But according to a new study, any small reminder – even quite unconscious – of my inescapable mortality will cause me to be more supportive of the killing of nonhuman animals.
The studies were led by Uri Lifshin, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, and they show that when you remind people of their mortality, they tend to deny that they are animals themselves, they have more negative attitudes toward nonhuman animals, and they become more in favor of killing them. This includes support for killing homeless pets in shelters, as well as animals in factory farms and vivisection experiments.
When you remind people of their mortality, they have more negative attitudes toward nonhuman animals, and they become more in favor of killing them.
It makes no difference whether you’re male or female, nor if you care about animal rights: you’re still subject to the effect regardless. Any small reminder of your own mortality will push you in the direction of being more supportive of killing other kinds of animals.
“At the beginning,” Uri says, “we thought that people who care about animal rights would support the killing of animals less when they think about death because it’s an important part of their world view. But we found that none of these variables moderated the effect.”
The one thing that did make a difference to people who took part in these studies was if they received some psychological security in the form of a boost to their self-esteem.
“We told a subset of them that they’d performed exceptionally well in what we’d asked them to do. And we found that when we boosted people’s self-esteem, that took away the effect of the death reminder.”
This all goes on way below the surface of our consciousness, so we’re not even aware of what’s driving our behavior.
Another discovery was that while a small death reminder caused greater support for the killing of nonhuman animals, it didn’t increase support for the killing of other humans (unless they were people toward whom we feel specific enmity). Nor did it make any difference if Uri and his colleagues gave one group of people, but not another group, a justification for killing animals. (Check out the segment of the video where Uri describes how different groups of people responded to being asked about the hundreds of millions of baby male chicks who are destroyed at factory farms in the United States every year.)
Uri is already planning a follow-up series of studies to look at how, when we’re reminded that we’re animals ourselves, this affects our level of aggression toward people of other cultures.
“When you look around the world and study the history of the mass killing of other humans, you see that genocide is often justified through the dehumanization of the victims. The victim is portrayed as an animal, and therefore it’s OK to kill them.”
One of the goals of social psychology, Uri explains, is to understand how people can do these terrible things.
“If we really want to get to the bottom of this,” he says, “we have to focus on our attitudes toward animals in the first place.”