Animals – a reminder of our own mortality?

Being reminded of our own mortality can sour our attitudes towards animals, psychologists have found.

Low self-esteem students who were reminded of their mortality and their similarity to animals subsequently reported more negative attitudes towards animals than low self-esteem students who weren’t given these reminders. The researchers said that, to the first group, animals had come to represent human “biological vulnerability and mortality”, thus provoking aversion and negative attitudes. They argue this is consistent with “Terror Management Theory“, which states we deliberately avoid stimuli that remind us of our biological state.

Ruth Beatson and Michael Halloran of La Trobe University, Australia, reminded some student participants of their mortality by asking them to describe what will happen to them physically when they die.

The researchers also reminded the students of their relation to animals by playing them a video about chimp reproductive behaviour and asking them to think about how similar it was to human sexual behaviour.

Those students reminded of their own creatureliness and mortality subsequently showed the most negative attitudes towards animals, but only if they had low self-esteem. The attitudes of high-self esteem students were apparently unaffected by the video and morbid question.

Regardless of their self-esteem, other students who were reminded of their creatureliness, but who were not asked to think about their mortality, showed more positive attitudes to animals, as did another student group reminded of their mortality but not their closeness to animals. In other words, negative attitudes were only provoked when the mortality and creatureliness reminders came together.

The researchers said their findings suggest anti animal-cruelty campaigns must emphasise the inter-relatedness of humans and animals in a “non-threatening manner”.

Beatson, R.M. & Halloran, M.J. (2007). Humans rule! The effects of creatureliness reminders, mortality salience and self-esteem on attitudes towards animals. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 619-632.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.