Mass Animal Suffering and the Collapse of Compassion

Posted by Matthew Liebman, ALDF Staff Attorney on August 8, 2011

A strange paradox constantly confronts activists in the animal protection movement: many members of the public express appropriate revulsion at cruelty against individual animals (e.g., the dog beaten by his owner) while simultaneously responding with indifference to the large-scale industrial exploitation that destroys the lives of billions of animals (e.g., the bloody slaughter that awaits every cow, chicken, and pig killed for his or her flesh).

A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sheds light on why this might be the case. In “Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering,” two social psychologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, C. Daryl Cameron and B. Keith Payne, examine people’s tendency to respond less compassionately to mass suffering than to individual suffering. They cite numerous studies that show that compassionate response decreases as the number of victims increases. Thus “large-scale tragedies in which the most victims are in need of help will ironically be the least likely to motivate helping.”

According to the authors, this “collapse of compassion” happens not because, as some have argued, people are less capable of caring about group suffering than individual suffering, but rather because they actively (if subconsciously) regulate their emotions to suppress the compassion they feel for mass suffering. In other words, caring less about mass suffering isn’t built into our makeup, but is instead an active process in which we downgrade our affective response to mass suffering.

But why do we do that? Self-interest. People tend to regulate emotions that they perceive as costly. If feeling compassion toward group suffering compels you to donate money, experience emotional anguish, or significantly change your lifestyle, you may choose to avoid that compassion altogether. Cameron and Payne summarize: “when faced with the prospect of mass suffering, people might find their emotions especially costly, and take steps to prevent or eliminate them.” Frankly put, sometimes it’s easier not to care.

Cameron and Payne’s study focuses on emotion regulation in response to mass human suffering (specifically the Darfur crisis), but its findings have important implications for animal activists who want to draw attention to mass animal suffering. Consider the examples mentioned above: it’s easier to care about the single dog abused by his owner than the billions of animals slaughtered for food, because the cost of compassion is less: one demands a simple moral indignation, the other a potentially drastic change in diet. If the hypothesis of this study is correct, people down-regulate their emotional response to mass animal suffering because, at least in part, they think the cost of helping will be too burdensome.

Furthermore, as the authors note, because emotional response influences moral judgment, when people dull their compassionate responses, they are less likely to adjudge the underlying conduct as immoral. For example, if we regulate our emotional response to minimize compassion for animals in slaughterhouses, we are more likely to condone that slaughter as morally permissible.

It’s depressing stuff and raises serious questions about how effective we can be in our campaigns to alleviate mass animal suffering. There are a few constructive lessons, though. First, the authors suggest that encouraging people to trust their emotional responses can help reduce their down-regulation of compassion. This highlights the importance of humane education to encourage children to foster, rather than suppress, the compassion they feel for animals. Second, we can reduce the “collapse of compassion” effect to the extent we can minimize the perceived costs of caring about mass animal suffering. For example, if we can show that adopting a vegan diet is easy, nutritious, and healthy, people will be less motivated to down-regulate their emotional response to exploited farmed animals.

(Thanks to the Humane Research Council for bringing this study to our attention.)

23 thoughts on “Mass Animal Suffering and the Collapse of Compassion

  1. eliza howard says:

    First I can not thank you enough for all your great work you do to help animals especially Tony the tiger from Louisiana. I am commenting here because going vegan is not as hard as people think. It does not have to be costly either. There are so many resources out there. Once you decide to go vegan you will see that it is not as hard as you thought and you will feel better about your food choices. Personally I don’t miss meat or dairy at all especially how guilty I felt while eating it.

  2. Taimie Bryant says:

    What a thoughtful post with a helpful link to the underlying research! In addition to moral psychological research applicable to our relationships with nonhuman animals, there should also be much more research than there currently is that is specific to those relationships.

  3. Elizabeth DeCoux says:

    Caveat: this post is long.

    I look forward to reading the study, and I appreciate your analysis and comments regarding it. There was another study conducted by some farm economists in Kansas (or was it Nebraska?)who applied a very complicated formula of the type economists use, and concluded that information provided to the public about the suffering of animals–such as the runup to the farm-animal ballot proposition in California–caused a slight but statistically significant reduction in the amount of meat consumed, during the fiscal quarter the information was broadcast, and in the next quarter. By the third quarter, consumption was back to its usual levels. The study indicated that there was an overall reduction in meat consumption, not just a shift from one type of meat to another.

    I wish the farm economists’ study had examined dairy products and eggs. Because they did not, some uncertainty exists about whether the reduction in meat consumption may have corresponded to an increase in consumption of eggs and dairy. I doubt there was a corresponding increase in consumption of eggs in California, because it’s my understanding that battery cages were a very significant focus of the advertising in advance of the ballot initiative.

    I wonder whether the study of downregulating compassion addressed this issue: Will advocacy be more effective when activists focus on,for example, a single battery hen. Will the pubic develop a compassion toward that one hen that can eventually broaden to encompass the millions of battery hens in the U.S. Or, by contrast, will consumers avoid developing compassion for the single hen, because they know there are millions more.

    Thanks for posting.

  4. Penny Ellison says:

    Thanks for the post! I think about this question a fair amount and it is good to see some empirical data developing. I have often seen the Joseph Stalin quote, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Unfortunately, it is proven right over and over again. People are capable of great empathy for individual stories of suffering but seem to have a hard time taking in genocide. Witness the press attention given every time a cow or pig manages to escape the transfer truck or slaughterhouse. We exterminate millions of animals but, when one briefly escapes, even meat eaters want to see it sent to a sanctuary. Then, they retreat to their kitchens and dine on another animal without the irony even crossing their minds.

    A similar event is turned into a national spectacle every Thanksgiving when a single turkey is “rescued” from the dinner table and escorted to the White House so that the President can symbolically “pardon” the turkey (for sins to be named later, I suppose). After being pet and played with by the children brought in for the event, the turkey is then sent to a sanctuary for farm animals to live out the remainder of its life. Then, the children, the first family and virtually everyone in attendance happily sit down to eat every other turkey that was in line at the slaughterhouse and not selected for star treatment.

    I suppose making veganism appear easy may be a partial answer – telling people that you can feel this pain and address it without much difficulty so go ahead and be moved by their suffering.

  5. John Maher says:

    Matt — this was a great post because it gets to the ultimate root of all the problems we all face in this profession — lack of compassion and consciousness of suffering. Susan Sontag also dealt with this theme on On the Suffering of Others (photographic images of suffering).

    BTW: am reading you excellent book with Bruce Wagman right now.

  6. Shari Tallarico says:

    According to this research another option would be to individualize the plight of farmed animals, such as following the journey of one calf born to a dairy cow. As someone who recently became vegan, it is not easy and I don’t think you should promote it as such. What prompted my change was watching undercover video-taped investigations posted on the Mercy for Animals website and You Tube, particularly one called “pregnancy at slaughter.” This study suggests many people are not able or willing to watch those and I have found that to be true even among my own family members. But a less gruesome story about one calf’s plight might present itself to the average person as having a lower emotional cost to absorb. Rhetoric seems applicable as well, asking a pointed question and allowing people fill in the blanks and find their own answers seemingly has no immediate emotional cost: “Cows, like any animal, must be pregnant to produce milk, so what happens to the babies?”. I’m not saying these tactics haven’t already been tried, rather that this study would seem to support their use.

  7. elizabeth says:

    Of course this is my opinion, but my feelings are that most people don’t feel much for any creatures in general. The reason for this as I said, this is my opinion is that a very long time ago, I guess we could say at the time of man, he was taught by his mothers or fathers not to show any respect for creatures. And it has gone on throughout the centuries. I have taken what I was taught and I have thought about it and come up with the opinion that that information was dead wrong. We were given brains and we were supposed to then think on our own. We were supposed to know right from wrong! But those people will just assume that what was told to them has to be right? So they just don’t think about the harm that is being done to any creature. Especially the poor creatues that are used as food, and the life they live before being killed for someone to eat their flesh.

    I can’t for the life of me decide why people can’t come to this way of thinking except that they are lazy and just take what was told to them as truth. Then you have those who have been told that they have to eat flesh. That they will not be healthy without it. Of course we know that not to be the truth since I haven’t eaten flesh in a very long time. The idea that people need to drink milk is also the very same thing. They have been told they have to drink it or else…of course we know this is not the truth too. In fact man is the only creature that continues to drink milk?? Maybe because we haven’t grown up yet? Other than that I can’t understand why we need it.

    We needed to question everything that was ever told to us. But we don’t, and in my mind a lot of people just don’t want to because that would mean that they had to give up eating flesh if they understood just how wrong and morally evil it was.

  8. Alisa M. Denny says:

    I have pondered this subject for quite some time. How can we cry out for a single animal and its suffering and yet allow the legalized torture and suffering of so many in our factory farming industry? I believe in addition to what this study has uncovered, that there is another factor at play here…. people don’t seem to be able to feel compassion for a nameless, faceless animal. They think of the random cow or chicken or pig as a emotionless being incapable of feeling pain or fear. Having raised animals on my farm and having experienced their unique personalities and their ability to show affection has made me very sympathetic to their plight. I wish that all humans had the chance to know a farm animal first hand, they would then be far more concerned with an animals right to a life free from pain and suffering.

  9. Gina Tomaselli says:

    This is very interesting, but still doesn’t quite answer the question as to why the vast majority of people in the rescue community, who lament the slaughter of 4 million companion animals every year, don’t think twice about eating a pig, an animal that has been shown to be “smarter” than a dog or a cat. As a dog rescuer AND an animal rights activist (and a vegan), I confront this hypocrisy all the time. How do I get these rescuers to see the irony of their actions without alienating them? What so-called animal lovers need to recognize is that it’s not about whether we, as humans, perceive the animal as a companion. It is about what the animal suffers. For example, I have no desire to be anywhere near a chicken, but the fact that I don’t like them does not justify eating them, because I know they suffer.

  10. mariam says:

    I would like to express my gratitude for all that you do for the suffering animals of our society and in particular for Tony the tiger. I am deeply grateful for your constant devotion and hard work.
    It is remarkable and reassuring to know that the voiceless abused animals have such an advocate in you…you have again my deepest gratitude.
    Mariam Willis

  11. I already knew this after reading Dr. Melanie Joy’s phenomenal book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows.

  12. Pam Decharo says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. Yes, it is hard to read, but at last someone has put a name to a problem that is easily forgotten or pushed aside by most people. The horrible treatment of farm animals will never end unless these kinds of articles are boldly put into the public forum-forcefully and often.
    Thanks again.

  13. Sonja Liotti says:

    I skimmed this article. I feel so sad every day for the chickens, cows, pigs and every animal who suffers at our hands. You are right, if people think about such suffering that goes on non stop they would either lose their mind or militate against such practices. When I am in a crowded subway car, or an unventilated elevator, I am right there with the poor abused chickens and cows in their living hell, crowded, either freezing cold or baking hot, with not an ounce of hope, unlike me, who can understand that my situation is at least, temporary. How they suffer! I pray each day for the humans who interact with our furry and feathered friends to develop the compassionate hearts that they were hopefully born with. Thank you so much, sincerely so, for all that you do!

  14. Che Green says:

    Matthew, thank you for making use of the study uncovered by the Humane Research Council, and for your insightful write-up. People might also be interested in a blog we wrote, “The Urgency of Animal Protection.”

  15. Ilene Bilenky says:

    What do you think of a group like the Humane Farming Association, which aims at humane keeping and slaughter of animals? (Someone at Farm Sanctuary told me, “There is no humane slaughter).
    I have always had trouble with people who enjoy hunting, even if it is for food. When I see something fly or jump or run by, I can’t imagine taking a primal pleasure out of blasting it, dead. But I realized that I was paying other people to do my “hunting” .
    I think it is unrealistic to think that people will become vegan/veg in such numbers that the animal-as-food business will end, therefore I want to support changing animals’ lives while they are alive, comfort when transported, and lack of suffering when killed (I believe this is what the kosher food rules are about).
    I buy any meat that I eat at the local farmstand. You can see the cows’ lives one mile from my house. One cow at a time is taken a few miles down the road to a local slaughterer (the farmstand only has room in the freezer for one cow). No, it’s not vegetarian, but it’s as not-cruel as the process can be. For that matter, the cruelty is the issue I have with the Korean dog/cat food markets (although the irrational part of me cringes at the thought of these animals for food).

  16. john says:

    What a load of crap lol. Its the food industry nothing more. I support them 110% for giving us delicious meat. Sorry if vegetarians see it differently but its not my problem. Freedom of choice gives me the right to eat as I choose.

  17. Pamela says:

    Could it also be that when the number of those suffering is too much for us to deal with we shut off our emotions to shield ourselves from being overwhelmed by it?

  18. Pamela. says:

    When I was a child, we were raised on meat as most ‘baby boomers’ were, when westerners knew no better. But even then I couldn’t understand how my mother could say “Look at the little baby lambs” with such affection as we drove through the countryside, and then cook roast lamb for dinner. I couldn’t reconcile the two opposing attitudes. As an eight year old I decided that her so-called fondness for lambs in a paddock was completely fake. I hated being forced to eat most meats, and used to leave little piles of the stuff around the plate or hidden under mashed potato.
    I don’t think I was meant to eat flesh. I haven’t touched the stuff in almost twenty years.

  19. Maria says:

    Yes, it is definitely humans fault for what we put those animals through. I was raised to love animals but it was ok to eat meat. In fact something was wrong with you if you didn’t….. It wasnt until I was older that I found out the truth….
    To John, you are certainly quite defensive. You are totally numb to all the pain and suffering those animals go through so you can have them on your plate…

  20. Pete says:

    @john “freedom of choice”–that’s a serious “lol.” See, I too have freedom of choice; I have the freedom of choice to slap my mother, kick my dog, punch a cop, call an African-American the “n”-word, run over people with my car who get in my way, and set fire to my neighbor’s house if he has an all-night party. Your choice, like mine, has consequences, and if we all don’t own up to the consequences of our choices, then you and I are assholes. 110%.

  21. Val Whyte says:

    Well said Pete!!!

  22. Marcia says:

    A great post but also rather depressing in that it suggests how hard it is to get people who help animals and to change their own behaviors that may be contributing to animal suffering. When human interests, profits, and pleasure are at stake, it will be hard to make the world better for all its creatures.

  23. PB says:

    Why is the notion of humans killing animals any worse than that of other animals killing animals (often in rather violent ways) for food? Are other carnivores and omnivores inherently immoral too? It’s part of nature. Everyone lives somewhere on the food chain. I can certainly respect vegans and vegetarians for their choice, but for them to chastise me for eating meat is rather self-righteous. Animal cruelty I certainly oppose, but eating meat is certainly not immoral. Could there be safer, more humane ways of bring animal products to the dinner table in our “commercial” food industry? Absolutely. I’m just not sure why vegetarianism and animal cruelty seem to go so hand-in-hand.

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