Study: Students Are More Empathetic Towards Puppies Than People

Two Northeastern Professors are trying to determine why that might be.

There’s a reason peoples’ hearts melt when they see big, brown puppy dog eyes.

According to a study conducted by Northeastern University sociology professors Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke, people feel more empathy towards a hurt, or battered dog, than they do for an adult human. The study also showed that people have the same amount of empathy for a puppy—compared to an older dog—as they do for an infant in cases where harm may have been inflicted. “We kind of hypothesized that age would make a big difference, and it did,” said Levin.

To complete their findings, which were presented this month at the meeting of the American Sociological Association, in New York City, Levin and Arluke asked 240 students from Northeastern University to read four separate news articles and then answer a series of questions about how each article made them feel on a seven-point scale.

Each article, all of which were fictitious, contained the same information, however, the person, or animal harmed in the story varied. In one story, people read about a battered puppy, and in another, a battered six-year-old dog. Then, in the other two articles they read about an infant and adult harmed under similar circumstances.

The subjects of the study, who ranged between the ages of 18 and 25, didn’t know the articles were fake.

What they found, Levin said, was surprising. “We measured it by empathy and distress regarding the victimization. We did that on a series of seven point rating scales in which the respondents were asked to indicate their degree of distress and empathy,” said Levin. “It was surprising because it was age and species working together that made the difference in the degree of distress. The subjects were very much distressed by victims who were puppies, and infants, and even full grown dogs, but not so much by the victimized adult humans.”

Levin said part of this is because, he believes, many people have become desensitized to violence, and also that many people feel as though adult humans can fend for themselves, while puppies and infants are obviously less capable to do so. “There is an unlimited amount of bad news about violence towards adults. I think adult humans are seen as capable of protecting themselves and not seen as very vulnerable,” he said.

As for why respondents also empathized more for adult dogs than humans: “People see them as just big puppies,” said Levin.

According to their study of the small sample of respondents, females were more distressed by victimization in general, versus male subjects that read the same news articles. Levin said gender makes a difference in almost every kind of empathy situation, and women have more of it than men based on studies he has conducted over the years.

This particular study stemmed from previous work Levin and Arluke have done together that examines the relationship between animal cruelty and human violence. For a number of years, said Levin, the duo has been interested in exploring that link, and trying to explain it, while determining whether it really exists. Their latest study was an extension of those findings. “Many people seem to be more sympathetic to animal victims than they are to humans, so we decided to develop an experiment where we tested the idea,” he said. “From here, we are going to continue to look at animal cruelty and its relationship to human violence.”