Feature image credit: Johann

Researcher: Sarah Gradidge

Affiliation: Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK

Favourite animal: Elephants

Email: sarah.gradidge@pgr.aru.ac.uk

Twitter: @SarahGradidge

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

My PhD research, supervised by Dr Magdalena Zawisza, Dr Annelie Harvey and Prof Daragh McDermott, explores speciesist attitudes towards different animals, particularly why people typically prefer dogs over pigs, even though dogs and pigs share many similarities, which should endear both species to us. I refer to this as “dog vs. pig pet speciesism.” My PhD has explored the causes of dog vs. pig pet speciesism, which includes self-relevance (whereby eating pork, ham, etc. may motivate people to view pigs negatively to alleviate their guilt), familiarity and similarity (whereby dogs are more familiar and people view dogs as more similar to us than pigs, which may improve people’s perceptions of dogs), and pet status (whereby dogs’ status as pets may confer positivity towards them). I am hopeful that my PhD research will inform future interventions to improve perceptions and behavioural intentions towards pigs.

Dogs and pigs share many similarities, so why do we typically prefer dogs over pigs? Photo credit: Matthias Zomer

What inspired you to pursue this topic?

I first went vegan predominantly because I was struck by how similar pigs’ behaviour (such as when they are playing) could be to dogs’ behaviour. I felt guilty that I could eat an animal which could behave in similar ways to my own much-loved family dog. At the time, I was beginning my MSc degree in psychology, so naturally I decided to do my MSc research project on this topic. My PhD was then an extension of my MSc research project.

What are some key findings from your work?

Firstly, I confirmed my MSc research by finding that dog vs. pig pet speciesism does indeed exist. As well, I found that people view dogs as warmer, more competent, more familiar, more similar to humans, more as pets and less as profit animals than pigs. I also found that self-relevance, familiarity, similarity and pet status predicted more flattering perceptions of dogs than pigs. To determine if these variables caused pet speciesism, instead of only predicting pet speciesism, I causally manipulated these variables to see if they affected perceptions and attitudes towards a novel animal.

It was surprisingly difficult to causally manipulate the familiarity of an animal – the mere exposure effect using photographs of the animal did not work, and neither did imagined contact. Pet status had some causal effects on perception (e.g., on warmth, whereby pet animals were viewed as warmer than non-pet animals), but it is not clear if pet status can explain differences in our behaviour towards pet vs. non-pet animals. Therefore, pet status may not fully explain why we treat pigs differently than dogs. I am still in the process of analysing all of my final PhD study results on similarity and self-relevance, so watch this space!

Dogs are seen as warmer, more competent and better pets than pigs. Photo credit: Helena Lopes

What theoretical perspectives have been useful to your work?

My PhD research utilises the Stereotype Content Model as a framework to measure pet speciesism. This model advances that our perceptions of others are split into two dimensions called warmth (how much we believe others have good or bad intentions) and competence (how capable we believe others are of enacting these intentions). This model has previously been shown to apply to perceptions of animals, not just perceptions of humans (e.g., Sevillano & Fiske, 2016). The Stereotype Content Model can easily be applied to predicted intergroup emotion and behaviour using an extension of the model called the behaviours from intergroup affect and stereotypes (BIAS) map. The BIAS map suggests that attributing greater warmth towards a group (or individual) promotes active helping behaviour, and less active harm, directed at the group. Attributing competence predicts greater passive help and less passive harm. There have been other theories which I have drawn on to identify possible causes of pet speciesism, including: motivated cognition and cognitive dissonance theory, intergroup contact theory and imagined contact theory and established theories of prejudice.

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

I would like future research to establish effective interventions to improve perceptions of pigs and behavioural intentions towards them, both by improving perceptions of pigs absolutely from pre- to post-intervention and relatively to dogs by reducing the speciesism gap. Theoretically, if we can remove the causes of pet speciesism, then pet speciesism itself can be reduced or even prevented. The most obvious, potential benefit of reducing or preventing pet speciesism would be reduced (pig) meat consumption. Reduced consumption of pork would, of course, help pigs themselves (a win in itself) but it could also have major environmental benefits. As meat consumption is a major contributor to pollution and climate change, any reduction in net emissions is highly welcome in order to decrease the warming of our planet. There may also be more subtle consequences of improving perceptions of pigs: People may be more willing to help pigs in need (e.g., by giving to charities that help farmed animals) and to advocate for pigs’ interests.

Meat production is a major contributor to climate change. Consumer reductions are needed to help slow the warming of our planet. Photo credit: dmncwndrlch

Any advice for new doctoral students doing work in this area?

I advise doctoral students to read widely across disciplines: Anthrozoology (the study of human-animal interaction) ties in to many ongoing issues today, including climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemics and disease, food provision, habitat loss, and antibiotic resistance. Anthrozoology draws on disciplines such as psychology, sociology, animal behaviour, evolutionary biology, history, philosophy, and religious studies. A broad general knowledge base gives you a wider view of human-animal relationships, enables you to make more connections and insights, and helps you to better avoid misunderstandings!

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

There are many possible exciting ‘next steps’, but one research avenue of great importance is investigating speciesism against a wider range of species, such as ‘pest’ animals (e.g., mice) or other wildlife, and developing interventions which improve perceptions of these species for animal welfare and/or conservation purposes. For example, it would be valuable to determine if the public perception of bats, which is typically very negative (especially since the beginning of the pandemic; Lu et al., 2021), can be improved. Currently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies more than 200 bat species as under threat, so improving public support for bats is very important.

Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, perceptions of bats are typically very negative. Photo credit: Pixel-mixer

There is also emerging research on where speciesism originates from. For example, research indicates that children aged five to nine years old show less speciesism than adults (Wilks et al., 2021). It is therefore possible that speciesism may be culturally learned in childhood, which should be explored in future research. If we ever want to address speciesism, then it is important to understand how and when it develops so that it can potentially be prevented.

In your recent paper you found that people engage in more victim blaming of pigs than dogs and described this as a form of pet speciesism. What exactly is pet speciesism and why do people show this sort of bias?

As discussed earlier, pet speciesism is prejudice against typical non-pet animals (such as pigs), in favour of typical pet animals (such as dogs). Our paper (in press) was the first to highlight that people view pig victims more negatively than dog victims (e.g., derogate them more, forgive their perpetrators more readily), and show dog victims more empathy and willingness to help them. There are potentially a number of causes of pet speciesism (see earlier discussion), though more research is needed to firmly established the causal role of some variables (e.g., whether the familiarity of “pet” species enhances our view of them).

You recently published a structured literature review of the meat paradox. Based on your review, what are some of the (a) key triggers of dissonance about meat and (b) ways that people manage these feelings?

The meat paradox describes the paradoxical situation of caring about animals whilst also harming them (through meat consumption). Our review highlighted that some of the key triggers of the meat paradox are (a) reminding people of the animal origins of meat, (b) labelling an animal as ‘consumable’ or ‘edible’, and (c) reminding people of the animal suffering involved in meat production. These triggers cause cognitive dissonance – that uncomfortable feeling which occurs when there is a disconnect between a person’s values (in this case, their desire to not hurt animals) and their behaviour (in this case, meat consumption, which inevitably harms animals). People resolve this cognitive dissonance using ‘strategies’ – the most common of these strategies include denying that ‘food’ animals have human characteristics (e.g., denying that these animals are capable of having a mind), the 4Ns which means justifying food as ‘natural’, ‘nice’, ‘normal’ or ‘necessary’, and denying that meat consumption has negative effects. All of these are so-called ‘direct’ strategies which deal with the dissonance head-on. People may also use indirect strategies, such as avoidance, whereby they avoid thinking about where meat comes from or avoid thinking about meat’s negative consequences.

The meat paradox refers to a state where people care for and yet eat animals. Photo credit: yairventuraf

What was one of the most surprising things that you found whilst reviewing this body of work?

Previous narrative reviews of the meat paradox have presented much evidence in favour of the meat paradox, so it was surprising to find three articles which suggested the meat paradox was not occurring. The review highlighted that most current evidence in favour of the meat paradox is indirect – that is, cognitive dissonance is inferred from behaviours, like denying mind to animals, and the results can be interpreted in favour of the meat paradox, but other explanations of the results are also possible. We need more direct research in the future which tests the meat paradox model in full – not just measuring triggers and strategies, but also measuring cognitive dissonance itself. As suggested in our paper, these measurements of cognitive dissonance may be explicit (e.g., expressed using self-report), which can be vulnerable to participant bias, or they may be implicit, such as skin conductance response. We particularly need more valid implicit measures of cognitive dissonance, similar to the Implicit Association Test, which was developed to measure implicit prejudice.

Key Papers by Sarah Gradidge

Gradidge, S., & Harvey, A., Mcdermott, D., & Zawisza, M. (2021). Humankind’s best friend vs humankind’s best food: Perceptions of identifiable dog vs. pig victims (pre-print).

Gradidge, S., Zawisza, M., Harvey, A. J. & McDermott, D. T., 2021. A structured literature review of the meat paradoxSocial Psychological Bulletin, 16(3), 1-26.

Gradidge, S., Zawisza, M., 2021. Different types of speciesismThe Psychologist.

Gradidge, S., Zawisza, M., 2020. Toward a non-anthropocentric view on the environment and animal welfare: Possible psychological interventions. Animal Sentience, 27(23).

Gradidge, S., Zawisza, M., 2019. Why factual appeals about the abilities of sheep may fail. Animal Sentience, 25(42).

Authors: Rebecca Gregson & Jared Piazza

Cover image by Zeke Tucker 

Researcher: Victoria Candace Krings

Affiliation: University of Kent, UK

Favourite Animal: Cats! Especially my two companions, Archie and Fitz

Contact by email: victoriakrings@gmail.com

Twitter: @VictoriaCandace (though I’m not very active there!)

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

My PhD research examines attitudes towards animals and meat consumption and the role of ideology and individual differences. My first research line examines how information relating to food animals’ sentience is (mis)remembered by those subscribing to dominance-based ideologies like right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO). My second research line explores the question of whether higher human supremacy beliefs are associated with a greater perceived moral divide between animals of high and low status (think for example cats vs. rats). My third and final research line moves away from attitudes towards animals and turns its focus instead to the psychological barriers standing in the way of clean meat acceptance. Clean meat (also known as cultured or lab-grown meat) is structurally identical to traditionally farmed meat and presents solutions to the ethical, environmental, and public health issues associated with traditional animal agriculture.

What inspired you to pursue this topic?

Documentaries, such as Cowspiracy, reveal the devastating impact of factory farming, prompting shifts to plant-based diets. Photo credit: Ave Calvar Martinez.

I first became interested in human-animal intergroup relations as a teenager after watching Cowspiracy and turning vegan pretty much overnight. When I was at university, Dr. Kristof Dhont  was one of my lecturers in my second year and learning more about his own research on human-animal intergroup relations inspired me to also work on these topics. He supervised my undergraduate final year project (on vegetarianism threat) and the following year also supervised my Master’s project.

My PhD research started out as a continuation of my Master’s work, focusing on the role of ideology and the motivated memory mechanisms that occur when omnivores are tasked with learning and remembering information about the sentience of animals used for food. My PhD research evolved from there as I explored the topics that were important to me as a researcher. I feel very fortunate to have found a supervisor whose research interests aligned very closely with my own so early on in my academic career, as this built a very solid foundation for our collaboration over the almost eight years we worked together.

What are some key findings from your work?

For my Master’s work, I found some initial evidence that individuals who endorse dominance-oriented ideologies — who see the human and animal world hierarchically — tend to make memory errors when remembering information about the sentience and intelligence of food animals, like pigs, sheep, and cows. Information about animal minds can positively impact on how animals are treated. Thus, this could suggest that ideology can affect how people encode and retain information about animals in ways that reinforce animal exploitation.

For my PhD, I found that people who hold stronger human supremacy beliefs seem to perceive a greater moral divide between animals of perceived high and low status, which may serve as a legitimising strategy to preserve not only human supremacy over animals, but also greater hierarchical divides between animals (e.g., valuing companion animals over wild animals). Such beliefs fortify the juxtaposition between those animals we care for and those we exploit and eradicate.

Lastly, I found that omnivores who are wary about new food technologies feel less positively towards clean meat as compared to traditional meat. Their wariness is partly explained by a greater concern for safety, rather than the perception that clean meat is unnatural. The findings highlight food safety perceptions as a key psychological barrier to clean-meat acceptance.

What theoretical perspectives have been useful to your work?

My earlier work is certainly heavily influenced by the dual-process model of prejudice, with a focus on right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO), and its applications in the realm of human-animal intergroup relations. I also found that the SD-HARM model proposed by my supervisor Dr. Dhont and his collaborators Dr. Leite and Prof. Hodson helped shape my theoretical approaches. During my Master’s, I became very interested in research on denial of animal mind (e.g., Bastian, Loughnan et al., 2012) as well as work on motivated memory mechanisms. My interest in clean meat arose out of personal curiosity in the media coverage on the topic at the time and I found it very useful to examine how and why people might feel wary of novel foods and foods produced using novel technologies.

In your recent paper, “Food technology neophobia as a psychological barrier to clean meat acceptance” you found that safety concerns explained why those higher in food technology neophobia evaluated clean meat dishes as less favourable. What is it about clean meat that you think people find unsafe? 

Concern for safety is a top priority of consumers when it comes to new food technologies. Photo credit: Ckstockphoto.

Of course, I cannot say this for certain as in my experiments I did not actually ask people why they felt clean meat appeared unsafe, but I do have a few educated guesses to make. Firstly, some previous research by Bryant and Dillard (2019) indicates that a high-technology framing can be detrimental to those individuals who are warier of new food technologies. Some have speculated that clean meat might be viewed as unnatural as a result. But, in my experiments, naturalness concerns had little to do with attitudes towards clean meat and were overridden by perceptions of safety and food technology neophobia. Essentially, I think people tend to be wary of new technologies in general, especially those that are not well understood, and this is accentuated when the product in question is a food for human consumption. This is why I think research into this area is crucial if clean meat is to succeed, as the framing and marketing aspects will have the power to make or break these products for consumers. It is so very important for consumers to understand the technologies, that they are demystified and explained in a rational and logical way to assuage people’s worries.

In the same paper, you also report that vegetarians and vegans, particularly those high in food technology neophobia, show an aversion to clean meat. Why do you think that vegetarians/vegans struggle to accept meat made from animal cells? 

Interestingly, some prior research has shown that vegetarians and vegans (veg*ns) actually feel more positively about clean meat than omnivores do, but that they are less willing to try or buy it regularly. I think in large part this is due to the fact that veg*ns already abstain from meat, and in many cases have no desire to reintroduce it into their diets. They can certainly perceive the ethical, environmental, and public health benefits of clean meat, but have adapted their diets to be meat free already. Additionally, a lot of veg*ns report feeling disgusted by meat, and since clean meat is structurally identical to traditional meat, I am not surprised that veg*ns show an aversion to it. Ultimately, the target demographic for clean meat will not be veg*ns, but rather omnivores and groups like flexitarians and those already leaning towards an animal-free lifestyle who are unable or unwilling for whatever reason to quit eating traditional meat. This is not to say no veg*ns will ever eat clean meat (I myself would certainly try it!). But clean meat could transform the eating habits of many omnivores without actually requiring much change at all, while bringing significant positive changes for the planet and animals.

Clean meat could transform the eating habits of many omnivores without actually requiring much change at all.

Victoria Krings

Any advice for new doctoral students doing work in this area? 

My biggest piece of advice is to protect and look after your mental health and build a strong support network for yourself. Research in this area can be very taxing, especially if you are invested in animal rights, so ensure you build strong relationships with your supervisory team and fellow PhD students working on similar topics. Building these connections will help you in your work as an academic but will also create a support network to fall back onto when things get tough. PhDs are never easy, so making sure you are well supported is crucial to your happiness and ultimately, also to your success.

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

I am very interested to follow the research on clean meat going forward, not only in Psychology, but also the technological innovations and advances that are bound to happen. This field is receiving great attention at the moment, with a lot of funding being allocated to companies across the globe. I hope my research on the topic has made a valuable contribution to the literature, and that others will find my work useful in conducting their own investigations into the barriers and opportunities to clean meat acceptance.

Key Papers by Victoria Krings

Krings, V. C., Dhont, K., & Hodson, G. (2022). Food technology neophobia as a psychological barrier to clean meat acceptance. Food Quality and Preference, 96, 104409. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2021.104409

Krings, V. C., Dhont, K., & Salmen, A. (2021). The moral divide between high- and low-status animals: The role of human supremacy beliefs. Anthrozoos, 34(6), 787-802. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2021.1926712

Krings, V. C., Steeden, B., Abrams, D., & Hogg, M. (2021). Social attitudes and behavior in the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence and prospects from research on group processes and intergroup relations. Group Process & Intergroup Relations, 24(2), 195-200. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430220986673

Authors: Jared Piazza & Rebecca Gregson

Feature photo credit: Lars_Nissen

Name: Christoph Klebl

Affiliation: University of Melbourne (soon: University of Queensland)

Favourite animal: The aye-aye, a lemur native to Madagascar. It has an unusual appearance, but it is weirdly cute and needs our protection as it is endangered.

Email: christoph.klebl@student.unimelb.edu.au

Website: www.christophklebl.com

Twitter: @ChristophKlebl

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

In my PhD, I sought to understand why and when people morally care about other people, animals, or nature. We already know that mental capacities influence the degree to which people care about targets. I was interested in whether aesthetic judgments are an additional factor that influence people’s moral concern, and specifically the degree to which people attribute moral standing to targets (that is, whether they view them as mattering for their own sake). In a related line of work, I also investigated the psychological function of aesthetic judgments. I mainly worked together with my PhD advisors Prof. Brock Bastian and Dr. Katharine Greenaway and with Prof. Rhett Diessner.

What inspired you to pursue this topic?

Tarsiers – cute or creepy? Christoph asks, “How does an animal’s beauty influence how we treat it?” Photo credit: Nick Kulyakhtin 

I was very interested in moral philosophy since my undergraduate studies, especially in ideas relating to the moral standing of animals such as the philosophical views of Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Though I personally find utilitarianism very convincing (which puts mental capacities of people and animals at the centre of moral considerations), I knew that sentience is not the only factor that people take into consideration in their everyday moral judgments. I happened to get particularly interested in the role of aesthetics in morality because of the amazing academics I was surrounded by during my studies. I was fortunate to be mentored by Prof. Semir Zeki—who studies the neural correlates of beauty—with whom I was able to discuss the relationship between morality and beauty, who showed me the most beautiful paintings in London’s museums, and who introduced me to a group of philosophers, biologists, art historians, and mathematicians, all studying aesthetic judgments. I felt that social psychology should focus more on this important experience too. Luckily, at this time I got introduced to Prof. Rhett Diessner who is one of the few people who studies the social psychology of beauty. He is an incredibly lovely person and working with him sparked my interest in this topic even more.  

What are some key findings from your work?

Snapping Turtles are seen as ugly because their skin reminds us of diseased skin. Photo credit: vujicivana

We found that people attribute more moral standing to beautiful people, animals, landscapes, and even buildings compared to their ugly counterparts. Building on this, we showed that aesthetic judgments influence the degree to which people attribute moral standing to animals independently from other factors that have been demonstrated to affect moral standing such as animal’s mental capacities, dispositional harmfulness, similarity to humans, familiarity, and edibility. In another line of research, we found that ugliness judgments are uniquely associated with the disease-avoidance system, and as such, have the function to alert us to cues of pathogen presence. Based on this, we found that perceptions of purity (indicating the absence of pathogen presence) are the psychological mechanism through which people attribute more moral standing to beautiful (vs. ugly) targets.

In your recent paper, “Beauty of the Beast: Beauty as an important dimension in the moral standing of animals” you find that beauty influences the moral standing of animals independent of traits related to an animal’s perceived character (e.g., harmfulness), similarity to humans, familiarity, and edibility. When it comes to animals, what characteristics are regarded as particularly beautiful or ugly?

In my research, I did not examine what people find beautiful or ugly but to what degree people care about animals that are typically considered to be beautiful or ugly. Though I’m not aware of research that has looked at what characteristics are regarded as beautiful in animals, there are general features of entities that people typically find beautiful such as symmetry, prototypicality, and familiarity. As for the other side of the attractiveness spectrum, my work suggests that we find animals ugly that have characteristics that remind us of disease such as asymmetrical faces and bodies. As we are most sensitive to human disease (we mostly interact with other people), we find animals especially ugly that have features that remind us of human disease and ailments.

The bald ibis is seen as ugly because their features remind us of human hair loss. Photo credit: manfredrichter

For example, we find a bald ibis ugly because it reminds us of human hair loss; we find snapping turtles ugly because their skin reminds us of a diseased skin; we find aye-ayes ugly because they have bodily features that we associate with unusual appearance in people like big ears and long deformed fingers; and we find puss moths ugly because their heads look like an injured body.

If people were made aware of this seemingly superficial bias (i.e., preferring to help “beautiful” animals), might they be less motivated to act in this way or is this bias highly difficult to overcome?

Evidence suggests that this bias is persistent and difficult to overcome, but this does not mean we should be defeatist. As with many human biases, there is no quick fix but if people become aware of their biases, they can learn to act in a way that counteracts those implicit biases. After all, most people think it is wrong to treat people or animals differently because of their appearance. I hope that in future advocacy groups will focus more on our attractiveness bias. Advocacy groups focus much more on animal intelligence and their capacity to suffer—and rightly so—but we also need to be aware that people’s moral intuitions are influenced by other characteristics of animals, including their outer qualities.

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

The implications of these findings are that people are more inclined to protect beautiful animals than ugly animals. For example, while many people care about beautiful animals such as pandas, koalas, or penguins, most people care little about bat species. This is a major problem for animal conservation because there are many critically endangered animals that are ugly, but very important to ecosystems. There are different possible strategies to make people care about ugly animals. One is to use beautiful animals as flagship species and through them get donations that can be used to protect ugly animals. For example, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) uses beautiful animals such as polar bears and pandas as flagship species, but they use the donations to protect other animals too. Another strategy is to familiarize people with ugly animals and through this reduce their negative reactions to them. This strategy is more effortful but if successful it might be superior because all donations would go directly to the most disadvantaged animals. Different strategies are valid in their own way, and it is probably good that organizations use different strategies to reach the same goal—protecting ugly endangered animals.

Any advice for new doctoral students doing work in this area?

There are so many unanswered questions about the function of aesthetic judgments and their role in morality, and designing interventions to increase people’s moral concern for ugly animals is especially important. I hope there will be more doctoral students working in this area. I don’t have any particular advice but as it still is such a small subfield, make sure to say hi to me.

Key Papers by Christoph Klebl

Klebl, C., Greenaway, K. H., Rhee, J. J., & Bastian, B. (2021). Ugliness judgments alert us to cues of pathogen presence. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(5), 617-628.

Klebl, C., Luo, Y., Tan, N. P.-J., Ern, J. T. P., & Bastian, B. (2021). Beauty of the beast: Beauty as an important dimension in the moral standing of animals. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 75, 101624.

Klebl, C., Luo, Y., & Bastian, B. (2021). Beyond aesthetic judgment: Beauty increases moral standing through perceptions of purity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672211023648

Klebl, C., Rhee, J. J., Greenaway, K. H., Luo, Y., Bastian, B. (2021). Beauty goes down to the core: Attractiveness biases moral character attributions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-021-00388-w

Klebl, C., Dziobek, I., Diessner, R. (2020). The role of elevation in moral judgment. Journal of Moral Education, 49(2), 158-176.

Authors: Rebecca Gregson & Jared Piazza

Feature photo credit: Tarryn Myburgh

Name: Wen Zhou

Affiliation: Duke University

Favourite Animal: Bonobo

Contact Wen via Twitter: @wen2hou

Email: wen.zhou@duke.edu

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

Name: Ben De Groeve

Affiliation: Ghent University, Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, Department of Communication Sciences, Center for Persuasive Communication. Ben is funded by a doctoral grant from the Flanders Research Foundation (FWO).

Favourite animal: I can’t make up my mind which animal would be my favourite. I find felids and canids beautiful. The skills of octopuses amaze me. Dinosaurs are awesome as well. You know: Parasaurolophus, Pachycephalosaurus, crows and chickens.

Contact Ben by Twitter: @BenDeGroeve

By Email: Ben.DeGroeve@UGent.be (work) or ben.de.groeve@gmail.com (personal)

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

Perceptions of vegetarians and vegans (or veg*ns), particularly from the perspective of the omnivorous majority.

What inspired you to pursue this topic/question?

I strongly aspire to increase our understanding of the natural world and to support the well-being of sentient beings. The widespread consumption of animal products causes a lot of harm: billions of sentient animals suffer; it compromises environmental sustainability and human health. These harms associated with animal-based diets are considerably diminished by adopting plant-based diets. In practice, there are a lot of barriers to overcome to realise a plant-based dietary transition, and one of them is social. Humans are highly social primates and they learn to eat what the majority eats. Melanie Joy (2009) calls the cultural belief system that justifies the consumption of animal products “carnism”. In Western countries, veg*ns challenge the carnist majority and their calls for change are often met with resistance or ambivalence. My co-supervisor, Prof Dr. Brent Bleys, nudged me to consider doing a PhD after he guided my Master’s thesis on promoting meat reduction (De Groeve & Bleys, 2017). My main supervisor, Prof. Dr. Liselot Hudders, prompted me to consider a social identity approach in examining barriers and facilitators of meat reduction and plant-based dietary shifts.

What are some key findings from your work?

Although veg*ns are stigmatised for their minority status, my research shows that the impressions veg*ns arouse are quite positive or mixed (De Groeve et al., 2021). Vegetarians and vegans evoke similar positive impressions for their perceived morality, their commitment, and for being concerned about animal ethics, the environment and health. However, veg*ns are criticised, relative to omnivores, for being less normal, sociable (e.g., picky, difficult, boring, annoying) and more moralistic (e.g., self-righteous, preachy, close-minded). Moralistic impressions were by far the strongest predictors of veg*ns’ lower social attractiveness, and vegans in particular aroused more negative perceptions.

Based on this research, I identified two dimensions of moralistic impressions: arrogance and overcommitment, which can be construed as negatively stereotyped counterparts of morality and commitment, respectively. I call this mixed-valence perception of vegans the “vegan paradox” – inspired by the “meat paradox”. Consequently, I developed a theoretical framework to explain the vegan paradox within the context of vegan advocacy (De Groeve & Rosenfeld, 2021). In the paper, I outline a future research agenda to test and apply the framework, with the aim of bridging gaps between academics and advocates (see Dhont & Hodson, 2020) and advancing widely overlooked research on minority influence (see also Bolderdijk & Jans, 2021).

What theoretical perspectives have been useful to your work?

Social identity theory was a thread through most of my work. Social identity approaches (e.g., McKeown et al., 2016) posit that humans can flexibly identify as individuals or group members depending on the social context. Combined with a desire for a positive and distinct identity, this can lead to ingroup favouritism, which arguably lies at the core of the bias to perceive veg*ns less favourably than omnivores (MacInnis & Hodson, 2017). In my 2019 paper, I applied a social identity perspective when I exposed omnivorous participants to a meat reduction advocate who was either described as a fellow meat-eater or a vegetarian (De Groeve et al., 2019).

To gain insight in omnivores’ impression formation of veg*ns specifically, I relied on stereotype content theory – a term I use to refer to theories which posit that the content of stereotypes can be captured with a parsimonious set of dimensions (e.g., Fiske et al., 2002; Goodwin et al., 2014). I applied Landy et al.’s (2016) three-dimensional content model (dimension 1: morality; 2: sociability; 3: competence) to hypothesise that veg*ns – as stigmatised, morally motivated minorities – would be perceived as more moral than omnivores, but also as less sociable and socially attractive (no differences were expected for competence). I further theorised that lower perceived sociability and social attractiveness of veg*ns would be predicted by two additional attributes associated with morally motivated minorities: moralism and eccentricity. These hypotheses were largely supported, especially with regard to moralistic impressions of vegans.

In the vegan paradox theoretical framework, I integrated my findings on vegan stereotype content with theory and evidence concerning the meat paradox (e.g., Bastian & Loughnan, 2017; Rothgerber, 2020), the New Look Model of cognitive dissonance (see Cooper, 2007), and moral psychology, featuring prominent topics including moral judgment (Schein & Gray, 2018), moral reasoning and moral disengagement (e.g., Graça et al., 2016), moral identity (Aquino & Reed, 2002), perceptions of moral character (e.g., Goodwin et al., 2014), and animal ethics (e.g., Francione, 2012). My work also utilises perspectives from sentientism (e.g., Woodhouse, 2018), Joy’s (2009) theorising about carnism, theories related to minority influence (e.g., Levine & Tindale, 2014; Wood et al., 1994), and motivated cognition (e.g., Kunda, 1990; Williams, 2020).

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

The topic of vegan advocacy has received scant attention in psychological literature. In my recent paper with Dan Rosenfeld, I provide a theoretical framework and future research ideas to better understand it. In general, my dissertation is highly relevant for those interested in animal advocacy. One notable implication is that I do not consider idealistic and pragmatic approaches to promote veganism to be at odds, but as complementary and negotiable.

Idealistic considerations provide the “why” of veganism, while pragmatic considerations are needed to address the “how” of behavioural change at a concrete and practical level. Both approaches have pros and cons, and the applicability of each approach depends on a variety of factors, such as shifts in public opinion and the perceived distance between omnivores and veg*ns. For example, idealism is more feasible if public opinion shifts favourably; pragmatism is very important for motivating highly committed meat-eaters. In my dissertation, I elaborate on practical recommendations based on my own research and policy recommendations focused on supporting campaigns and education, environmental restructuring, and implementing fiscal measures and regulations to promote plant-based diets.

Nevertheless, more research is needed. I would like future research to scrutinise my work and extend my findings. So far, I have described findings for the omnivorous majority as a group, but I realise that there is considerable heterogeneity among omnivores. The ecological fallacy (i.e., making inferences about individuals based on the groups to which individuals belong) looms large. It should be acknowledged that dietary habits and transitions are highly individual. Although I examined some level of variation within the omnivorous group in my research (e.g., flexitarian statuses, gender), future research could focus more on within-group variation and compare omnivores’ intra- and intergroup perceptions with veg*ns’ intra- and intergroup perceptions to obtain a more nuanced understanding of intergroup dynamics. I also would like to see my work being used to examine perceptions toward other morally motivated minorities (e.g., effective altruists, environmentalists, feminists) and to better understand socio-psychological barriers to and facilitators of positive social change more generally.

What are some obstacles you faced during your PhD journey? How did you overcome them?

It might sound strange, but when I heard my PhD proposal was accepted, I was torn. On the one hand, I was grateful and very passionate about my research topic. On the other hand, I worried that a high workload, poor “work-life” balance, and a competitive research culture would lead to a mental breakdown. Unfortunately, mental health problems among PhD students is relatively common (e.g., Levecque et al., 2017). I did some “self-development activism”. I read a book about burn-out and Allen’s (2015) Getting Things Done. Fortunately, my worries largely disappeared when I shared my concerns with my supervisors. They assured me that we would work on the PhD project on a step-by-step basis and that my mental health matters.

Being open and honest about serious concerns and personal expectations may help a great deal to build trust and mutual understanding, and to avoid internalising problems. Of course, supervisors do not always have the time or expertise to provide specific emotional or academic support. In case you need help with certain issues, make sure to look for it proactively. For my second study, I consulted the effective animal advocacy research organisation, Faunalytics. They offered advice which considerably improved my experimental design. For the study that followed, I contacted Daniel Rosenfeld, PhD candidate at UCLA, because of his expertise, which resulted in a fruitful collaboration. I also have perfectionistic tendencies, which leads to indecisiveness at times. My supervisor helped me to relativize and “let go”, to make decisions and stick to them.

Any advice for new doctoral students doing work in this area? 

Although every doctoral student has a different background, I can give some general advice:

  • Choose your supervisors wisely, e.g., assess whether their leadership style is constructive, not laissez-faire.
  • Know what you want and don’t want to do.
  • A good background in statistics is useful when you’re doing experimental research. It helps you to better plan your research, to conduct power analyses, and to preregister your hypotheses.
  • I recommend doing more exploratory research in the beginning of your PhD project to develop ideas, theories, and skills instead of immediately doing confirmatory research.
  • I recommend following a personal effectiveness course somewhere in the beginning of your PhD, if possible.
  • Use software to automise your bibliographies (I like Mendeley). APA-manuals can help you with planning and writing down your research in a structured, focused way. Many journals rely on APA-guidelines to format articles, so I would recommend to familiarise yourself with these guidelines early on.
  • Realise that the publication process can be quite tiresome and celebrate if you reach an important goal.
  • Realise that your colleagues often experience similar problems, but also that social comparisons are not always informative.
  • Realise that writing a dissertation might not go as quickly and smoothly as you would like to imagine, so start writing well in advance and incorporate time buffers in your planning. For the rest: enjoy your leisure time, take walks, meet with friends, and take time to rest and digest.

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

Concerning animal advocacy, I think a revival is needed of majority–minority influence research. As I note in my dissertation, the dominant literature appears rather pessimistic about the ability of minorities to instigate change, but given that the influence minorities exert is often indirect, private, and delayed, it is easily overlooked by scientists, policymakers, and minorities themselves (see also Bolderdijk & Jans, 2021). Many people may believe that idealistic approaches to veganism (e.g., signalling moral commitment; telling the truth about factory farming practices) only result in social rejection or backlash. However, these ideas need further testing. Therefore, I think an important next step for researchers in the field of animal advocacy is to engage more with existing minority influence research and revisit these assumptions. In addition, I recommend researchers to invest more in interventions to challenge common psychological defences (e.g., unveiling carnism) and on animal uses beyond meat consumption (e.g., dairy, eggs, leather, zoos, medical research).

At the same time, I acknowledge that the line between idealism and dogmatism can be thin, and that moralistic behaviour may be a genuine concern both within and outside the vegan movement (Leenaert, 2017; Markowski & Roxburgh, 2019). To address these concerns, future research may focus on assessing stereotype accuracy, and on developing strategies to improve intergroup relations. The literature review by Graça et al. (2019) reveals that practical factors need significantly more attention as well. There is an urgent need for research focused on “opportunity” variables (e.g., availability plant-based alternatives, cultured meat, socio-economic barriers) and “capability” variables (e.g., learning how to cook plant-based meals).

In our article on the vegan paradox, Dan and I propose ideas for methodological advancement, including real-life choice experiments to directly measure behaviour, longitudinal designs to measure delayed impact, and interactionist approaches to complement experimental research. I recommend preregistration of studies to clearly separate confirmatory from exploratory findings and to avoid questionable research practice, like HARKing and p-hacking. This will generate more reliable recommendations to inform positive social change for animals.

Key Papers by Ben De Groeve  

De Groeve, B., & Bleys, B. (2017). Less meat initiatives at Ghent University: Assessing the support among students and how to increase it. Sustainability (Switzerland), 9(9), 1550. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9091550

De Groeve, B., Bleys, B., & Hudders, L. (2019). Okay to promote eating less meat , but don’t be a cheat – The role of dietary identity, perceived inconsistency and inclusive language of an advocate in legitimizing meat reduction. Appetite, 138(December 2018), 269–279. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2019.03.031

De Groeve, B., Hudders, L., & Bleys, B. (2021). Moral rebels and dietary deviants: How moral minority stereotypes predict the social attractiveness of veg*ns. Appetite, 164, 105284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2021.105284

De Groeve, B., & Rosenfeld, D. L. (2021). Morally admirable or moralistically deplorable? A theoretical framework for understanding character judgments of vegan advocates, Appetite, 168, 105693. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2021.105693

Author: Jared Piazza