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Memento mori: Reminders of death increase willingness to harm animals

puppy
Rebecca Noble | The Daily Wildcat

"Puppy athletes get fouled for ""unnecessary ruff ruff ruffness"" on the practice field at CityScape Phoenix and the Puppy Bowl Cafe on Thursday. New research aims to understand why humans can be content with the deaths of animals often considered cute.

A new study led by Uri Lifshin, a doctoral student in psychology, indicates that people’s own fear of death may influence their treatment of animals and attitude towards the killing of animals. 

Lifshin worked with psychology graduate student Colin Zestcott, psychology professor Jeff Greenberg and psychology assistant professor Daniel Sullivan, and was inspired by Lifshin’s own love of animals and a desire to understand why humans kill animals for reasons unrelated to survival. 

“We kill a lot of animals, for many different reasons,” Lifshin said. “There seems to be a lot of killing that could be easily avoided. Millions of cute cats and dogs are being euthanized every year.” 

This issue even occurs in the United States, which Lifshin notes as a progressive country in terms of animal welfare. 

Lifshin believes that understanding this topic could answer the question of how someone is able to commit genocide on another group of people. The two topics are related in that genocide often occurs when one group dehumanizes an "outgroup", or a group of people they perceive as different from themselves. 

“One of the things that helps perpetrators go through with killing mass amounts of outgroups is that they dehumanize them,” Lifshin said. “It’s easier to kill humans when they are seen as animals."

Legebatterien | (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chickens kept in a concentrated animal feeding operation. The research focused on animal deaths for reasons other than direct consumption of food, such as the economics of production.

Composed of five separate experiments, the study is a continuation of Lifshin’s work studying terror management theory, a concept that suggests people seek self-confidence and meaning in life to cope with their fear of death, and is inspired by the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. Reminders of death would then increase an individual’s desire to seek security and a sense of immortality; one way to do so is to assert dominance over animals.

Lifshin worked under the hypothesis that if killing animals served the purpose of increasing self-esteem, reminding people of death would increase their support of the killing of animals for different reasons. 

To test this, Lifshin reminded people of death through subliminal primes. Participants were asked to complete what they believed to be a word association activity. Before completing the task, participants were asked various questions to determine their support for the killing of animals. Some of the participants were primed with the word “death” flashing during the task, while the other participants were primed with a control such as the word “pain” or “fail.” After the priming, Lifshin measured how much the participants supported the killing of animals by asking them a variety of questions related to animal welfare. 

Lifshin's questions focused on issues such as killing animals to control over population or for cosmetic research and stayed away from topics that can be considered necessary, such as food and medical research.

What he found confirmed his hypothesis. 

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“Participants who were primed with death did support the killing of animals more than participants in the control group,” Lifshin said.

Prior test results that indicated a strong belief in animal rights did not moderate the effect. Anyone who was primed with a reminder of death demonstrated more support for the killing of animals, regardless of attitudes towards animal rights. 

Several other experiments controlled for variables such as gender and religion, while an additional test determined that a self-confidence boost negated the effects of the death prime.

A final study offered participants a real-life example to work with: the annual killing of 200 million male chicks in the egg industry.

“We tried to play around with the justification of this killing,” Lifshin said. Participants were told that the killing was necessary for the survival of the egg industry or that it only served to save 10 percent on costs. 

Participants read about the death of the male chicks in the different contexts and were presented with different amounts of money taxpayers could pay to stop it. Those primed with death were more likely to support the killing of the chicks and also refused to pay more than a 10 percent increase in taxes to stop it. 

“It’s not just being tolerant; it’s actually supporting the killing,” Lifshin said. “We found that the more you support the killing, the more powerful you feel.” 

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Lifshin noted that this research is not groundbreaking; instead, it fills a hole in the existing research on the topic. 

“Earlier terror management studies have already shown that, when we think about death, we want to disassociate ourselves from animals,” Lifshin said. “What we did is not such a leap in terms of theory. It’s basically pinning down this link.” 

 Lifshin hopes to continue the research and find more connections between the killing of animals and the killing of humans. This would allow him to further understand the psychology behind the killing of dehumanized outgroups.

He also wants to look at other cultures and learn from how they treat animals, particularly Native American and Indian culture, who incorporate animals into their religion. 

The full study is available here.


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