Empathic choices for animals versus humans: the role of choice context and perceived cost

J Soc Psychol. 2022 Jan 2;162(1):161-177. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2021.1997890. Epub 2022 Jan 16.


People appear to empathize with cases of animal suffering yet to disregard such suffering when it conflicts with human needs. In three studies, we used an empathy regulation measure - the empathy selection task - to test whether people choose or avoid sharing in experiences of animals versus humans. In Study 1, when choosing between sharing experiences of animals or humans, participants preferred humans and rated sharing animal (versus human) experiences as more cognitively costly. In Studies 2a-2b, the choice to share experiences or be objective was done without a forced choice between animals and humans. When empathy opportunities for humans and animals were not contrasted against each other, participants avoided experience sharing for humans but not for animals. Manipulations of prosocial cost in these studies did not consistently moderate choice differences. Freeing people from contexts that pit empathy for animals against empathy for humans may diminish motivated disregard of animals' experiences.

Keywords: Empathy; animals; effort; emotion regulation; moral judgment; prosocial behavior.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Empathy*
  • Humans