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Last Updated on July 21, 2016

It is a well-known idea that people care more about animals than other individuals – and it seems to be true in some respects. Young and helpless creatures – both human and animal – tend to be more prone to draw our empathy than grown-up people, even when adults or mature animals are being hurt, finds a study presented at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in New York.

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Research workers had 240 participants read four fictional news stories about the beating of a baby, a puppy, an adult in his thirties and a 6- year-old old dog that is. A significant number of the participants – male or female – expressed greater empathy for the pup and the baby, and occasionally for the old dog, than for the adult male.

“Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal than human anguish,” said Jack Levin, PhD, Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University, in a statement issued by the ASA. He presented the findings with co-author Arnold Arluke, PhD, also a professor. “Our results suggest a much more complex scenario with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important part. The truth that mature human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full grown dog casualties implies that adult dogs are regarded as dependent and exposed not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids.”

Pet lovers are inclined to imbue their furry pals with human qualities which are applicable across species, the researchers said. Though the study focused on dogs and people, they believe the findings would be similar for cats and humans.

Why the Young Warm Our Hearts

We suffer when we see pets and little children in pain simply because they’ve never done anything to hurt anyone, said Liz Rampy, M.Ed., LPC, founder of the Hambone Project, an initiative to increase compassion for people and animals by raising awareness of their social needs.

“We understand that kids and animals are innocent,” Rampy said, adding that “we’re partial to creatures and babies because we understand that they have no aim to hurt us. We appreciate the truth that they accept us for who we are. Therefore and we do not have to judge their motives find them easy to trust. Individuals have an inner desire to love and be loved. It is often less difficult to extend creatures ourselves because we know their answer is actual. We also realize that they do depend on us and count on us for survival.”

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In regards to adults, she said, “We often view them as living together with the consequences of alternatives they have made themselves. It is not always although this really is usually the situation. For example, humans often inaccurately and unfairly consider that a homeless person must have ‘done something incorrect’ or they wouldn’t be displaced. It is a self-protection mechanism. We tend not to wish to think that we could ‘do everything right’ and still fall victim to being in a bad or undesirable scenario.”

The Age Factor in Empathy

While the Northwestern researchers were surprised to locate that species was trumped by age, said Rita Eichenstein, PhD, a pediatric Neuropsychologist in La, it makes sense because our human make-up is really to care for and defend those who cannot do so for themselves.

“We’re wired to nurture the young and defenseless, either our own or in our ‘tribe,'” said Dr. Eichenstein. “Evolution has assembled in the ‘cuteness’ variable in infants to ensure that they’re irresistible and bring people to them. Nature has also designed a cuteness factor in young animals, as well as the more the creature is cunning – resembling a human baby with modest characteristics, button nose, sleepy eyes, and passive friendly characteristics – the more probable it’ll be appealing to people and so is likely to be nurtured.” That’s why a lot of people favor classes that have floppy ears and seem as if they are grinning, like Golden Retrievers.

“Both creatures and infants turn on our nurturing light bulb as critter faces could be associated with human babies,” Eichenstein included. “We’re wired to nurture. And we generalize our feelings to other species — including dogs.”