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Why We Underestimate Animal Minds
On the unequal consideration of nonhuman animals
“Animals are afforded minds when it suits our interests, but the inverse is also true; when it does not suit us that animals have minds, we fail to see them.”
~ Brock Bastian et. al, 2012
People are typically skeptical about nonhuman animal sentience and often underestimate their capacity to suffer. We deny the minds of those who are most dissimilar or unfamiliar to ourselves. This not only affects how we treat those individuals, but it also provides post hoc justifications for how they are typically treated. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. History provides copious examples of the mistreatment of those who don’t meet these criteria.
Racism is the unequal moral consideration of other races, because they look different. Sexism is unequal moral consideration based on sex, because of sex differences. Speciesism is unequal moral consideration based on species membership, because, well, you get it.
Though these forms of discrimination are unique in their effects, their belief structures are strikingly similar. Throughout this article, I will focus on animals, because that is what the article is about, but pay attention to how most of the arguments apply to other forms of prejudice as well. I’ll bold the font to make these instances easier to spot.
Speciesism and the meat paradox
Why are we susceptible to speciesist thinking? And why does it have such a profound influence on our behavior?
Us humans pride ourselves on our intellect, ingenuity, capacity for cooperation, and our unique ability to escape the perils of nature. And we should. These are all wonderful qualities for an animal to have to ensure its survival. They are among the many reasons humans came to dominate the world. But our pride in these abilities can go too far and lead to a preference to be distinct from all other animals in almost every way. In some contexts, the term animal might even be taken as derogatory. I don’t remember the last time I was flattered to be called an ape, or a pig.
Despite our beliefs about animals, most of us aren't callous to them. Unless we are brought up in an environment where cruelty to animals is normalized, we genuinely seem to care for the well-being of animals, at least when they are in our immediate proximity. Not many people smile at the sight of roadkill.
Yet, when animals are not within our immediate proximity, we deem they're suffering a worthwhile trade for our consumption - a necessary evil. This contradiction has been called the meat paradox. That is, we enjoy eating meat, but experience discomfort (i.e., dissonance) when the meat is linked to the death of an animal.
Why does the meat paradox persist?
One major reason is that we deny animals the capacity to suffer by denying their minds. Indeed, when people are primed with the concept of meat, they are more likely to view animals as mindless.
One study by Leach et al. examined how people update their beliefs after being primed with signals that nonhuman animals have minds. An early contention one might have with the methods is that we cannot know whether the signal is accurate. That is, we cannot know whether the signals used in the study are actually a sign of consciousness or if they only suggest consciousness. This is a valid criticism. It is notoriously difficult to study animal minds.
But this includes humans. To be clear, we cannot prove that anyone besides ourselves is having a subjective experience. Consciousness is not something that can be proved (yet). In other words, we underestimate animal minds because we can. “You can't prove to me that that pig is conscious.” To which one could reply, “You can’t prove to me that you are either.”
But we can look at whether our beliefs are in line with the available evidence, which is what Leach’s study did. Specifically, they looked at people’s prior beliefs, then presented them with cues about their veracity. Then the participants provided their updated beliefs.
This paradigm made it possible to predict what the updated beliefs should be based on the probability of the signal’s accuracy. The perfect human should have beliefs that are perfectly proportionate to the likelihood of those beliefs being true. Using Bayes’ theorem, we can compare how this perfect human would update their beliefs with how the participants updated theirs.
Similarly, they tested how we update our beliefs about animals after being primed with cues that they don’t have a given capacity. The study looked at two groups: meat eaters and those who abstain from meat. They also looked at how these groups made judgments about animals that are typically raised for food, and animals that are typically kept as pets, as well as how we make these judgments about other people.
They found that meat eaters and vegans alike underestimated animal minds even after being primed with evidence of their cognitive capacities. Likewise, when they received cues that animals did not have minds, they were unjustifiably accepting of the idea. Stated differently, we are overly skeptical when told that animals have minds, and overly credulous when we are told that they don’t. The participant’s prior beliefs about animals had a significant effect on how they updated them. This is called the anchoring effect, i.e, our prior opinions can influence we make decisions and how far we update our beliefs. This work shows that for one reason or another, we all collectively underestimate consciousness in nonhuman animals.
Why do we underestimate animal minds?
Whether it’s an innate predisposition or learned throughout development, our favoritism toward human minds - and our discounting of other minds - boils down to speciesism. How we categorize others plays an enormous role in how we view them. To connect this back to other forms of prejudice, consider how early western colonists viewed other races as categorically different from them. So too with nonhuman animals.
Among the most common antecedents of prejudicial attitudes are similarity and familiarity. Both of these factors influence how we categorize animals and hence determine their moral value. For example, in most contexts, we associate chicken with the food and not the animal. When others say they are going out to get the chicken, we don’t expect to hear cawing when they come back.
Consider how we treat dogs and pigs. Though pigs and dogs are far more similar than they are different, we treat dogs like family, and pigs like, well, ham.Both pigs and dogs share similar sociality and intelligence, for example, but they differ in their familiarity and self-relevance to humans. Dogs also have the advantage of evolving with humans for the past 32,000 years, so they know how to cue their emotional states to us. They have developed an inner eyebrow muscle and, debatably, can even smile at us. The similarity bias is most pronounced when we compare mammals’ moral worth with the moral worth of nonmammals, like reptiles or bugs. In general, we empathize with mammals due to our preference for the similar over the dissimilar.
A key reason we see animals as dissimilar is that sometimes they do seem pretty mindless. It is important to recognize why they seem this way. Most of the minds we encounter in day-to-day life can communicate back to us. When the ability to communicate is absent, we assume that the ability to think is also absent. Imagine that, like humans, pigs could convey their thoughts to us through speech. It would certainly be harder to slaughter them as they are begging for mercy.
We also prefer that which is familiar to us. For example, we perceive familiar faces as more likable than unfamiliar faces. This is what underlies the proximity principle i.e., we prefer those who are closer to us over those who are more distant. This is why animals that we see every day get preferential treatment over those that we see more sparsely.
It is hard for dog owners to eat dog meat because the interchangeability is too salient. We might imagine the dog on our plate switching places with the one on our lap. Conversely, it is relatively easy to cut into a steak because cows are not as present in most people’s day-to-day lives.
The arbitrary terms we have for meat make it doubly unlikely that the corresponding animal will come to mind. In other words, we can eat steak or pork without thinking about cows and pigs.
People are afforded moral rights mainly on the basis that they have minds. When our actions are laden with moral conflict (e.g., when we are reminded of the link between the meat on our plates and the animal it came from), we justify them through mind denial. The feeling of discomfort this instills is called dissonance, which is a feeling that we are very much motivated to avoid. This is why cognitive dissonance is a common cause of a host of thinking errors, such as motivated reasoning, delegitimization, and strategic ignorance. Therefore, we are inaccurate in our perceptions of animals not because we are stupid, but because we are motivated reasoners.
We are especially likely to engage in motivated reasoning when we are directly responsible for the harm inflicted. Our role in factory farming feels abstract because the harm we inflict is indirect, separated by several steps before the meat hits our plates. This also allows us to share the responsibility with everyone involved in the raising, killing, selling, and serving of the animal.
When the negative consequences of animal agriculture become more salient, we become less inclined to eat its products. It might even trigger disgust, causing us to lose our appetites. Consider vegans who abstain from meat for ethical reasons versus those who abstain for dietary reasons. The former are much more likely to view meat as body parts, and thus more likely to be disgusted by meat. In other words, disgust rooted in ethical abhorrence is stronger than disgust rooted in meat itself.
This idea holds in a study by Brock Bastian and colleagues, where they found that “the attribution of mind is associated with reduced edibility of an animal, increased perceptions of moral worth, and increased negative affect associated with its consumption.”
Besides mind denial, a commitment to eating meat can reduce the negative affect associated with dissonance. Not only does the food we eat provide us with sustenance and pleasure, but it also brings us together and provides us with a way to celebrate our cultures. Culture has long provided justifications for injustice. After all, “everyone is doing it.”
Pointing out cultural justifications for inequity may be seen as a desecration of cherished values, or even as discriminatory. People are understandably defensive over their cultures and are motivated to preserve them at all costs, which can actually be admirable. Many indigenous peoples go through great efforts to preserve their language. And that is beautiful. But some cultures still practice slavery, and that is less beautiful.
It is the same with meat eating, but in this case, our biases are even stronger. It is harder to subject animals to suffering than it is to humans. Not only that, but given that meat eating is almost ubiquitous worldwide, the desire to uphold it as a cultural practice is also ubiquitous. The battle against speciesism is steep, as most of us aren’t even sure that it’s worth fighting for, or that the battle even exists. Progress cannot be made through specious arguments and ignorance, but through recognizing the feeling of dissonance and addressing it.
Much like dogs and pigs, the different forms of prejudice are far more similar than they are different. Not only is the psychology of prejudice pervasive, but it is also remarkably simple, consisting of just a few components. They’re also pernicious and deterministic of our behavior. Unlike most forms of prejudice, we have yet to overcome speciesism. Only through recognition of this fact can progress be made.
Throughout history, we have conducted cruel experiments on animals and even tortured them for fun (seriously). Descartes likened all nonhuman animals to automata, even though he was famously loving to his dog. We have made progress over the centuries, yet we still kill 40 billion land animals (so, not including seafood) per year for consumption. The lives of these animals are often unbearable.
Progress has been made, but we have a long, long way to go. The first step is to get people on the same page that there is in fact a problem. Previous generations have made radical progress in overcoming the horrors of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and almost every other form of prejudice. Maybe it’s our turn to make radical progress. Future generations might be disappointed in our complacency if we don’t.
Bastian, B., & Loughnan, S. (2017). Resolving the meat-paradox: A motivational account of morally troublesome behavior and its maintenance. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(3), 278-299.
Bastian, B., Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Radke, H. R. (2012). Don’t mind meat? The denial of mind to animals used for human consumption. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(2), 247-256.
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Gradidge, S., Zawisza, M., Harvey, A. J., & McDermott, D. T. (2022). Farmyard animal or best friend? Exploring predictors of dog vs. pig pet speciesism. People and Animals: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 5(1), 11.
Harmon-Jones, E., & Allen, J. J. (2001). The role of affect in the mere exposure effect: Evidence from psychophysiological and individual differences approaches. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 889-898.
Leach, S., Sutton, R. M., Dhont, K., Douglas, K. M., & Bergström, Z. M. (2023). Changing minds about minds: Evidence that people are too sceptical about animal sentience. Cognition, 230, 105263.
Marino, L., & Colvin, C. M. (2015). Thinking pigs: A comparative review of cognition, emotion, and personality in Sus domesticus. International Journal of Comparative Psychology.
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Prguda, E., & Neumann, D. L. (2014). Inter-human and animal-directed empathy: A test for evolutionary biases in empathetic responding. Behavioural processes, 108, 80-86.
This varies across cultures and lifestyles. Those who own pigs as pets are much less prone to viewing them as mere livestock and treat them much like how most people treat dogs. Similarly, cultures that raise dogs for food are less likely to acknowledge their full capabilities, just as western cultures underestimate pigs.