Why do humans feel solidarity with animals?

The “us vs. them” dynamics of human-animal relationships are surprisingly complex.

Humans’ earliest experiences with empathy often involve animals. Even if you didn’t have a pet growing up, your favorite picture books likely starred an anthropomorphized animal or two, and your first friend may have been a teddy bear. Catherine Amiot and Brock Bastian are working to understand the psychological links behind humans' feelings of solidarity with other species. We spoke with Amiot about their recent paper, which develops a measure of solidarity with animals and explores the phenomenon’s predictors and impact.

ResearchGate: What led you to study this?

Catherine Amiot: Animals are omnipresent in human lives: they entertain us, they are represented in various forms of art, and they are used as symbols of human attributes. Animals are also involved in the socialization of children though books, movies, and toys. And we spend billions on our pets every year. Yet, little research has looked at the nature of our psychological links to other animals, and how we conceive of our shared evolutionary roots.

RG: How do you define solidarity?

Amiot: Solidarity involves one’s psychological bond with, and commitment to, fellow in-group members. It involves investment of the self in coordinated activity with those to whom one feels committed.

A relevant theoretical approach to capture this phenomenon involves the social psychological theories of intergroup relations. This perspective allows us to capture the “us vs. them” dynamics that also operate in our relationship with animals. Prior social identity research has traditionally focused on how we identify with groups of humans. With this work, we seek to extend prior research by specifically testing the extent to which humans subjectively experience solidarity with animals as a social group.

RG: What did you find?

Amiot: The more participants subjectively perceived that animals and humans share similarities and communalities, the greater they tended to report high solidarity with animals.

In one experiment, we tested this by presenting participants with pictures of animals (e.g. cows, monkeys, fish, owls, foxes) that have human-like emotions, such as pride and contempt. We then compared their self-reported solidarity with animals to those who saw pictures of animals that did not display such emotions, and to a neutral control group. People who had seen the animals expressing emotion did indeed report more solidarity with animals compared to others. We used the same species of animals in both conditions to control for type of animal and things like cuteness and size. This allowed us to ensure that our results were not due to these aspects.

RG: Are some types of people more likely to feel solidarity with animals than others?

Amiot: One group that reported higher solidarity with animals was pet owners. This is presumably because pet ownership can involve a high commitment to one's animal, as it requires adjusting one's lifestyle and resources to suit an animal's needs. Most pet owners also consider their pet to be an integral member of the family. Because of this close connection, pets may play the role of ‘‘ambassadors’’ for other animals and serve as a springboard to increasing concerns toward animals at large.

Vegetarians also showed more solidarity with animals than non-vegetarians. While a diversity of motives exist for avoiding meat eating—including health concerns—some vegetarians make this lifestyle choice out of concern for the treatment of animals in the meat industry. While being intuitive, these results provide validity for the notion of solidarity with animals, and confirm that certain types of people are more likely to display this sense of solidarity.

Solidarity with animals was not associated with age, socioeconomic status, or religion.

RG: Is there any connection with how much solidarity people have for other humans?  

Amiot: We expected that solidarity with animals—because it taps into a broad and inclusive sense of social connection—should be associated with lower prejudice towards other humans. The findings confirmed that solidarity with animals correlates negatively with certain forms of prejudice against human groups, namely ageism and racism.

RG: What do you hope people will take away from your study?

Amiot: Frans de Waal, a well-known primatologist, once wrote: ‘‘If part of the other resides within us, if we feel one with the other, then improving their life automatically resonates with us.’’ Let's hope that this research contributes to the understanding of how we can acknowledge and nurture this (animal) part of the (human) self.

Featured image courtesy of Bonnie Kittle.