Who you gonna save? The puppy or the babe?

Last night I met my cousin’s new puppy. She weighs three pounds, often gets tired from walking just a few feet, and makes the tiniest little grunting sounds when she plays tug-​​o-​​war. Cradling her on my arm, my heart was melting. It prac­ti­cally broke in two at the sound of her little body flop­ping on the floor when she tripped or decided to take a rest. Just four and half years ago I had a sim­ilar little crea­ture run­ning around my apart­ment, just as pre­cious, only curlier and blonder:

MC Black Boy

This is Ledley when he was a puppy. Don’t you just want to squeeze him? I know, it’s ridicu­lous. Photo by Joyce Tabor.

When Ledley was a puppy he slept next to my bed and I would stare at him as I fell asleep, his fluffy little belly rising and falling in com­plete peace. When he cried from his crate because he was scared and lonely, being away from his lit­ter­mates for the first time ever, I thought I might drop dead from guilt. You’d think the effect would have worn off by now, but that’s just not the case.

Look at that adorable four-year-old tongue! Photo by me.

Look at that adorable four-​​year-​​old tongue! Photo by me.

No, even though he’s prac­ti­cally as old as me in dog years (what­ever those are), he still elicits just as much love and affec­tion from me and pretty much everyone else he meets. In fact, we once over­heard a muscle-​​man say to his com­panion, “Doesn’t that dog look like some­thing from the Build-​​A-​​Bear workshop?”

It’s not hard to figure out why adult humans are so empathic toward our own babies. Since they can’t take care of them­selves, we’ve got to do it in order for our species to sur­vive the ages. But a new study from North­eastern pro­fes­sors Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke sug­gests that we have nearly as much empathy for pup­pies and adult dogs as we do for the cuddly minia­tures of our own species. On the other hand, the researchers’ results showed a sig­nif­i­cantly lower level of empathy for adult humans.

Arluke and Levin, whose research inter­ests are in the areas of ani­mals and society and extreme vio­lence, respec­tively, asked 240 soci­ology and anthro­pology stu­dents between the ages of 18 and 25 to read a fic­ti­tious news­paper article that they thought was real. Each par­tic­i­pant was ran­domly assigned one of four ver­sions of the article, which read thus:

October 16th, 2010: BOSTON — after a notice­able increase of attacks against res­i­dents of cer­tain Boston neigh­bor­hoods, Police Com­mis­sioner Davis has assigned a larger law enforce­ment pres­ence to cer­tain crime “hotspots” around the City. Last week, police inves­ti­ga­tors doc­u­mented a total of 11 attacks on res­i­dents of the South End alone. One assault involved a one-​​year-​​old infant who was beaten by an unknown assailant. Arriving on the scene a few min­utes after the attack, a police officer reported there were no life-​​threatening injuries to the victim. No arrests have been made in the case.

Some par­tic­i­pants got this exact story, but three quar­ters of them weren’t reading about an assault on an infant, but rather, a puppy, a six-​​year-​​old dog, or a 30-​​year-​​old adult. The researchers then asked the stu­dents to indi­cate their level of dif­ferent emo­tions using a scale from one to seven. Their responses were then col­lected into an overall empathy score, ranging from 7 to 112, where higher num­bers mean more empathy.

As you’ve prob­ably guessed by now, pup­pies and dogs gen­er­ated pretty much the same amount of empathy, which was only slightly lower than that felt for human babies. But that 30-​​year-​​old? The stu­dents could pretty much care less about the adult. “It appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of pro­tecting them­selves while full grown dogs are just seen as larger pup­pies,” said Levin. Yep, I’d say that’s true when it comes to Ledley. What would he do without me and his pop? What would he eat? Where would he sleep? And who would give him his heart worm medicine?!

But the nuances in the results sur­prised Levin and Arluke. While many other studies and anec­dotal evi­dence have pre­vi­ously demon­strated that people have more empathy for dogs and other ani­mals than we do for our own species, it turns out that rela­tion­ship is a little more com­pli­cated with respect to age. “Con­trary to pop­ular thinking, we are not nec­es­sarily more dis­turbed by animal rather than human suf­fering,” said Levin. “Our results indi­cate a much more com­plex sit­u­a­tion with respect to the age and species of vic­tims, with age being the more impor­tant component.”

Levin and Arluke plan to con­tinue exam­ining the link between human vio­lence and animal cru­elty, a topic they’ve been exploring together for some time. One remaining ques­tion is whether the dog’s breed would make a dif­fer­ence in the results. Are we more empathic toward dogs in gen­eral, or do labradoo­dles and cairn ter­riers elicit a dif­ferent response than bull­dogs and bloodhounds?

A flood of media cov­erage fol­lowed the study’s find­ings, which Levin and Arluke pre­sented at the 108th Annual Meeting of the Amer­ican Soci­o­log­ical Asso­ci­a­tion last week. I’ve counted more than 20 sep­a­rate online news sto­ries about the find­ings; everyone from Fox News Radio to USA Today to the Mother Nature Net­work seems to be inter­ested. I asked Levin what he thought that might be about. Here’s what he said:

Media cov­erage prob­ably reflects the same fac­tors involved in the reac­tion of our sub­jects to the vic­tim­iza­tion of young chil­dren and dogs.  Amer­i­cans may have become desen­si­tized or numb to vio­lence directed against adult and teenaged humans.  Cable tele­vi­sion has, for many years, pro­vided bumper-​​to-​​bumper cov­erage of such vio­lence.  The news is filled daily with sto­ries about young adults shooting or stab­bing one another over the slightest provocation.

The New­town, Con­necticut mas­sacre in December 2012 was dif­ferent:  Twenty first-​​graders lost their lives, and the media jumped all over the tragedy for some six months.  Even Con­gress and the Pres­i­dent got involved in attempting to change national policy.  It is doubtful that the reac­tion would have been so extreme if all of the vic­tims had been adults.