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Humans Feel Greater Empathy for Battered Dogs than for Battered Adults, Study Shows

Aug 10, 2013 09:35 PM EDT

People feel greater empathy for puppies and even full-grown dogs subjected to violence than they do for battered adults, a new study shows.

Presented at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, the report examined the reactions of 240 men and women between the ages of 18 and 25, each of whom randomly received one of four fictional news articles. Each story was identical in every way with one exception -- the victim, which varied between an infant, an adult in his 30s, a puppy and a 6-year-old dog.

Upon reading the story, participants rated their feelings of empathy towards the victim.

"Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering," Jack Levin, the Irving and Betty Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University, said in a press release regarding the results. "Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component."

All told, adult humans fared the worst when garnering empathy, suggesting, Levin says, that adult dogs are considered vulnerable and dependent, "not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids."

Also surprising was that children and puppies essentially tied.

"Age seems to trump species, when it comes to eliciting empathy," Levin concluded.

In regards to relying wholly upon Northeastern University students as study participants, the researcher argues that doing so only helped to verify the results.

"Unlike survey research, experiments usually employ a homogenous sample in order to establish a cause and effect relationship rather than to generalize a large population," Levin said. "However, there is really no reason to believe that our results would differ very much nationally, particularly among college students."

Furthermore, while the study focused on dogs, Levin says he believes the same would hold true for cats as well.

"Dogs and cats are family pets," he said. "These are animals to which many individuals attribute human characteristics."

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