Student Showcase: Wen Zhou

Feature photo credit: Tarryn Myburgh

Name: Wen Zhou

Affiliation: Duke University

Favourite Animal: Bonobo

Contact Wen via Twitter: @wen2hou


What is the central topic or question of your PhD research?

My dissertation research focuses on the psychological parallels between intergroup conflict in human groups and human-animal interactions. For example, I’ve studied how social dominance orientation expresses itself within a human-animal intergroup context. My PhD supervisor is Professor Brian Hare, who has spent his career studying how the evolution of dogs and bonobos helps inform our own evolution as a species capable of intergroup tolerance. His book Survival of the Friendliest is a great introduction to his work. I have been fortunate to get to work with him on these topics.

What inspired you to pursue this topic?

I was initially interested in studying dehumanisation, the phenomenon whereby stigmatised groups are stripped of ‘humanness’ and viewed as animals, as a means of justifying their subordinate status in society. David Livingstone Smith’s book Making Monsters provides an excellent introduction to this topic. People who dehumanise tend to believe in a hierarchical structure to society and see some groups as less deserving of moral status than others. This observation inspired me to look into how these intergroup psychological processes might operate within human-animal relations. I think this is an important topic because this research will advance our understanding of how we can improve both the lives of animals and stigmatised human groups.

What are some key findings from your work?

One thing I am finding is that the way people think about the moral standing of animals and humans depends upon similar psychological mechanisms. We know that people with high social-dominance orientation (SDO) perceive that there is a natural hierarchical structure between social groups. I found that social-dominance oriented people also endorse hierarchical structures with regards to other beings. One way I investigated this was in the context of modern dog breeds. Historically, dog breed invention is entangled with social class and humankind’s pursuit of social status. My work shows that people with high-SDO believe some breeds are superior to others–what I call “breed dominance orientation” (BDO), building upon the construct of SDO. People high in BDO exhibit discriminatory attitudes and behaviours toward certain dog breeds (e.g., biased resource allocations, harm acceptance), very much like how individuals high in SDO exhibit prejudicial attitudes and behaviours towards human out-groups.

Positive contact with dogs can reduce hierarchical thinking. Photo credit: Shalom de León

Another line of my work focuses on ways to target the underlying bias of dominance orientation to improve the lives of stigmatised animals and humans. As one example, I did a cross-sectional observation with pet owners and compared them to non-owners. I found that frequent positive contact with dogs, such as kissing, hugging, or just walking together, predicts lower SDO and BDO. Interestingly, K-9 trainers, who work with dogs daily, but who sometimes have to use aversive training and participate in negative contact, did not show reductions in SDO or BDO. A clearer understanding of the causality of these effects is, of course, needed, and so longitudinal studies will be helpful in this regard.

At Duke, we have a puppy kindergarten. Undergraduates can voluntarily take care of puppies or just visit when they want. The puppies are pre-service dogs and are either Golden Retrievers, Labradors, or the mix of them. We conducted surveys with undergraduates who volunteered or frequently visited the puppies and compared their SDO/BDO before and after these activities. The results revealed a positive effect of interacting with puppies in attenuating BDO. The effect on SDO was somewhat weaker. We are in the process of gathering direct observations of contact behaviours based on video recordings, but so far the preliminary findings are promising.

What theoretical perspectives have been useful to your work?

My work is based mainly on three theoretical perspectives. The first is social dominance theory. As mentioned earlier, SDO work focuses on human intergroup relations. However, this personality variable also explains some of the prejudice against other beings (e.g., see Dhont, Hodson, & Leite, 2016). The second perspective involves expansion of the moral circle. The past century has seen an increase in moral consideration for non-human individuals. This shift does not occur at once for all beings. I am curious about which animals people tend to include in their circle of concern and why, and the social factors that encourage moral expansion. For example, my work on conservation motivations in children reveals that instructor-led discussions about the value of forests for sustainability can promote collective support for their conservation.

Finally, I think mind attribution, i.e., the ability to confer vs. deny mental states to others, is also critical here. Human evolutionary history led us to affiliate and empathise with socially close targets and care less about socially distant targets, whose minds we understand less. This paved the way for further biased attitudes and behaviours. My research interests touch upon the link between our perceptions of animal minds and beliefs about their moral standing. Does emphasising the mental similarity between different beings encourage moral considerations for animals? Which mental abilities matter most? We see lots of mixed findings in this area and there is still many questions to explore. 

In your Animal Advocacy conference talk, you talked about a Breed Dominance Orientation (BDO) Scale that you developed. How does your new scale build upon SDO, and what do you see as the unique benefit of the BDO scale? 

The intention behind the BDO scale was to develop a tool that assesses how people rank the moral status of different dog breeds. Recent years have seen excellent research that indicates that SDO is useful in understanding how people prioritise human lives over other animals and justify the exploitation of animals (e.g., Caviola, Everett, & Faber, 2019; Dhont & Hodson, 2014; Dhont et al., 2014). My goal with the scale was to broaden the research scope and consider if preferences for hierarchical structures play a role in assigning moral value within a single species of animal, in this case, dog breeds.

People often have prejudicial and hierarchical views of different dog breeds. Photo credit: Jeyakumaran Mayooresan

I focused on dog breeds, rather than developing a scale to look at dominance orientation across animal species, because I wanted to isolate the influence of dominance orientation on animal treatment, independent of considerations that would vary between species, for example, differences in the perceived conservation status of species. I wanted to focus on a single species for which people are quite familiar, and likely have hierarchical views about.

One potential benefit of the BDO scale is that it may be a unique way to study dominance beliefs while minimising socially-desirable responding, which is a problem for the SDO scale. People may soften or disguise their true beliefs when responding to direct measures of discrimination. But perhaps people are less concerned about appearing prejudicial towards different dog breeds. Insofar as measures of BDO and SDO relate, the BDO scale may serve as an indirect measure of SDO – one that skirts the issue of social desirability.

How would you like to see your work applied or used? Are there implications for animal advocacy?

Ultimately, I’d like to see my work used to encourage animal conservation, and address issues of discrimination, both between human groups and between humans and animals. If there is a common basis to prejudice, then strategies that are effective in one domain should be useful in the other. A range of disciplines have tested strategies to combat intergroup bias, and it would seem that many of these strategies (e.g., positive contact) may be useful for animal advocacy.

What do you see as an important ‘next step’ for our field? 

Plenty of research has shown that there are individual differences in the preference for social hierarchy. We need a greater understanding of the origins of such anti-egalitarian beliefs to develop more effective interventions to uproot them. In this direction, I believe the role of intergroup contact as a liberalising agent shows promise. Cross-group friendships, indirect and simulated contact, all seem to promote more flexible, open-minded thinking in ways that help reduce intergroup prejudice and foster multiculturalism (Hodson et al., 2018). Continued research is needed to better understand how intergroup contact within a human-animal context might foster cognitive liberalisation as a mechanism for expanding of our moral concern for animals.

Key Papers and Publications

Zhou, W., & Hare, B. (submitted). Adults and children blatantly dehumanize outgroups. A preprint of the manuscript can be found here.

*Bowie, A., *Zhou, W., Tan, J., White, P., Stoinski, T., Su, Y., & Hare, B. (submitted). Extrinsic motivators drive children’s cooperation to conserve forests. A preprint of the manuscript can be found here. *Shared first author credit.

Author: Jared Piazza

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