Consider this scenario: both a dog and a human being are standing side-by-side, facing a harmful event in which they both need help in order to remain unharmed. While you would surely like to assist both, you are only able to help one of them. Which do you choose? This decision would understandably be difficult to make, since both are at varying abilities to defend themselves as well as at varying levels of cuteness.
However surprising or unsurprising it may be, however, studies have clearly revealed that when it comes down to empathetic situations, the majority of people choose to help the dog over the person (1).
Does Your Friend Love Their Dog More Than You?
Many people openly admit that they prefer their dogs to human beings. According to Sigmund Freud, “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate” (2). Faced with this interesting phenomenon, sociologists and anthropologists from Northeastern University and the University of Colorado decided to scientifically investigate why such a strong bond exists between people and their cuddly pooches (1). They wondered why it was that when a report of an animal in need made headlines, the overflow of response was often much higher than when similar headlines hit the news concerning human impact.
In order to investigate the situation, researchers asked 256 college students to read a fictitious report about a brutally beaten adult or child versus a report relaying a similarly abused dog or puppy (1). All of their reactions of empathy were measured in order to reveal some striking results: more empathy was clearly displayed for a canine of any age than for an adult human (1). According to the study, “We…found more empathy for victims who are human children, puppies, and fully-grown dogs than for victims who are adult humans. Age makes a difference for empathy toward human victims, but not for dog victims” (1).
Age Does Matter
The actual order of empathy was highest for the puppy, with the human baby coming in second, the adult dog in third, and the adult human far in last place (3). Female participants were far more empathetic towards all victims in general(4).
According to the researchers, “Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and the species of victims, with age being the more important component. The fact that adult crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full-grown dog victims suggest that adult dogs are also regarded as dependent and vulnerable, not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids” (4).
Ultimately, it seems that we are much more likely to feel empathy for helpless victims who are unable to properly defend or look after themselves, such as infants and toddlers, than we are to feel empathy for adult victims capable of handling themselves (4). According to this research, we apparently view puppies and dogs under the same light, deserving of similar amounts of empathy and protection (4).
The Hero Complex
While it’s obvious that people create bonds and develop feelings of love quite strongly between themselves and other human beings, the research reveals that when given a choice, one is much more likely to defend and assist those who are incapable of defending and helping themselves. While two adults can certainly communicate in ways impossible for infants and dogs to, the mere fact that babies, puppies, and adult dogs are vulnerable makes them much more likely to earn the empathy of an onlooker.
So consider the scenario: both a dog and human being are in need of your help, and you can only help one. Statistics and evidence aside, which do you choose?