Implicit Bias Toward Non-Human Animals: Examining Our Own Speciesism
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM Kimberly Spanjol, Exploring Veganism
September 2019

We ARE animals, just like all the other sentient creatures we share the planet with, like it or not. It is also the case that humans don’t always have mercy for other humans, let alone non-human animals.

I often wear a baseball cap from a non-profit organization called Mercy for Animals. Their logo is boldly displayed with the organization’s name across the front of the hat. Whenever I wear it, I am usually asked in an incredulous tone, “Mercy for animals? What about mercy for people?!”

My response is always some variation of the following, doing my best to communicate so the listener will hopefully get curious rather than shut down: “After doing thoughtful work in this area, I discovered that my capacity for mercy and compassion extends to all animals, human and non-human. Does that make sense?”

Implicit Bias Toward Non-Human Animals

It can be hard for humans to see their connection to other animals – or even like seeing themselves as animals at all! Research supports that children from many different cultures have a hard time believing that humans are animals even when they are taught this explicitly in school (2). Nonetheless, we are animals, just like all the other sentient creatures we share the planet with, like it or not. It is also the case that humans don’t always have mercy for other humans, let alone non-human animals.

However, the status of other animals is so low in human culture and thought, our indoctrination to their invisibility that allows for their extreme exploitation and suffering so pervasive, our collective empathy toward them so dampened, many people cannot see their implicit biases against them or their inherent worth at all – even in relation to their significant impact on human health and well-being.

Our Relationships With Non-Human Animals

Non-human animals play a critical role in helping people live healthy lives. On an individual level, our relationships with companion animals, participating in ethical activities, interactions and learning that involve animals, including ethical forms of animal-assisted therapy, demonstrate how the human-animal bond can bring about positive deep and lasting social, emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual and psychological changes. On a societal level, humane and sustainable systems contribute to the health and wellbeing of all humans, non-humans, and the planet we share due to our deeply interconnected nature.

Human-animal relationships have a dark side, too. Neglect, abandonment, cruelty, abuse and euthanasia are rampant even among companion animals like dogs – an animal that many people in many countries love and care for like human family members. Billions of animals that are routinely used and exploited for food, entertainment, fashion, household products and more are subjected to horrors we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies in systems that hurt other humans and our environment too. Yet, most humans participate in supporting these systems both directly and indirectly, causing unthinkable and systematic harm to animals, humans and the environment. Many humans are not even aware of alternative choices available to them that help rather than harm others. Even when they are aware, people still often choose to participate in harmful behavior and use psychological defense mechanisms, such as denial, suppression, compartmentalization, and justification to keep their mental health intact as they do (please see fellow Exploring Veganism blogger April Lang’s May 2019 post “Our Choices Impact Animals: The Dynamics of Choice” for more on this).

Privilege, Choice and Speciesism

Many humans have privilege that allows them to access choices that either harm or help animals – and choices are always based on beliefs. What is the underlying belief that guides otherwise compassionate, kind and caring humans to make choices that exploit and harm other animals?

Speciesism is the belief in human supremacy and that the interests of one species are inherently more important than members of another species. Speciesist thought is represented and embedded in human behavior, and therefore expressed in public policy and social institutions on all levels. Research also supports that people who have speciesist attitudes are less empathic, more prejudiced, and closed-minded toward humans who are different from themselves – which for some may be reason enough to further explore their own implicit biases toward non-human animals (1).

T.J. Kasperbauer’s book, Subhuman: The Moral Psychology of Human Attitudes Toward Animals deeply details why all humans have unique implicit biases against non-human animals. While I am extremely oversimplifying here, putting non-human animals in an “outgroup” category allows for their rampant exploitation and use, and also helps people to justify feeling more superior to them as we see ourselves in a distinctly different and privileged category – human. This false notion of superiority and disconnection is similar to the way people may feel when they dehumanize other humans to artificially boost their own self worth on some imagined status hierarchy. This practice causes a tremendous about of harmful behavior generated toward people, animals and the environment.

Increased awareness of widespread exploitative and cruel behaviors perpetrated toward animals is causing a growing number of people to shift away from practices and systems that harm them. As psychologist Melanie Joy’s extensive work on the psychology of eating meat (carnism) demonstrates, our innate human tendencies toward social connection and compassion is damaged when we engage in contradictory harmful acts toward other animals. When we pet our dog with one hand and eat a pig with the other – an animal that is every bit as intelligent and sentient as a dog – we must dampen our empathy, on some level, to do so.

Much of human thinking lies outside of our awareness – including our moral thinking about animals. Veganism is a counterpoint to speciesism. Vegans choose to see animals as the sentient beings science informs us that they are, worthy of human respect, dignity and kindness. Please remember that all humans tend to have implicit biases toward non-human animals in some way, shape or form. Remaining in a state of openness and curiosity about our own biases and beliefs about non-human animals as they surface can help raise our awareness and allow us to make choices that contribute to a kinder and safer world for everyone –humans included.

So here is a tip for examining your own implicit bias, or speciesism, toward other animals: When making a choice about your purchases – whether it is your next meal, your next supermarket visit, your next item of clothing, your next car – ask yourself if you are harming or helping other animals by making this choice? This will likely require some thoughtful exploration as harms toward other animals are almost always hidden by the industries that profit from their use and abuse. Be curious about how your answer makes you feel. Practice self-compassion as you notice. Once we put some space between thinking and acting, we can stop being reactive and make choices based on conditioned, indoctrinated thinking. We can instead consciously make thoughtful choices that are aligned with our deepest values. I don’t know any better way to access true well-being and happiness than practicing and being grateful for the opportunity to express our values though living a life filled with integrity, dignity, and exercising our privilege of choice to help ourselves and others – rather than harm us all.

Notes:

  1. Caviola, Everett, & Faber found significant, sizeable correlations between speciesism and three other major forms of prejudice: sexism, racism, and homophobia. Caviola, L., Everett, J. C., & Faber, N. (2018). The Moral Standing Of Animals: Towards A Psychology Of Speciesism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000182
  2. See Carey, S. (1985). Conceptual change in childhood. Cambridge,MA: MIT Press.

Kimberly Spanjol, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, LMHC is a Licensed and Doctoral Level Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Humane Educator. She holds certifications in Animals and Human Health, Animal Assisted Interventions, and Teaching Mindfulness to Youth. She has served as an educator, researcher, consultant and clinician. Dr. Spanjol is currently an Assistant Professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. She teaches courses in Environmental Crime, Environmental Justice, Species Justice and more. Her clinical work is focused on children, teens and young adults with a variety of behavioral, developmental and mental health issues as well as their families. Dr. Spanjol has worked in private practice, educational and correctional settings for more than 25 years. Her canine therapy partner, Ella, creates miracles in human health and happiness regularly. Dr. Spanjol’s areas of expertise are Behavior Modification, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Social Emotional Learning, Humane Education, Intersectionality and Social Justice, Ethical Animal-Assisted Therapy, The Human-Animal Bond, Animals and Criminal Justice, Animal Protection and Environmental Criminology.


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