Children Are Much Less Likely Than Adults To Prioritise Human Over Animal Lives

By Emma Young

“Two boats are sinking and you can save only one. One holds two dogs, the other a person. Which do you save? If you’re not sure, you can say, ‘I can’t decide.’” When I put this to my 11-year-old, his response was immediate: “Save the dogs!” In his defence, he has grown up with a pet dog, which he adores — and, according to a new study in Psychological Science, most other kids would say the same thing.

To adults, these findings might seem a little alarming. Indeed, when the team put similar questions (varying the numbers of dogs, pigs and people) to adult participants, 61% opted to save one human over 100 dogs (which does mean of course that nearly 40% didn’t), and 85% of people prioritised one human over one dog, while 93% opted to save a human rather than a single pig (3% went for the pig).

When the team asked 249 kids aged between five and nine about what they thought, though, they found that just over 70% opted to let a person die to save 100 dogs. When it came to one human vs one dog, only about a third of the children opted to save the person, 28% were clear on going for the dog, and the rest couldn’t decide.

When pigs, rather than dogs, were pitted against people, the children’s responses were also revealing. Of course, pigs are not generally kept as pets, but for many of these urban, US-based kids (whose religion, if any, was not ascertained), are rather sources of food. And yet only 57% prioritised one human over one pig, and 18% reported that they’d save the pig. The child’s age had no impact — the 9-year-olds made the same judgements as the 5-year-olds. However, both kids and adults who had regular exposure to dogs showed less of bias in favour of people over dogs; for the kids, this also extended to a lower bias in favour of people over pigs.

In a follow-up study of fresh groups of adult and child participants, the team kept the same varying human vs dog or pig ratios but altered the question to ask what “Mr X”, who “always does the right thing” would do. They did this to be very clear that they were asking for moral judgements. The results were very similar to those from the first study.

In the first study, the team had also asked the adults and kids to rate humans’, dogs’ and pigs’ intelligence and also capacity to feel pain, sadness and fear. Both adults and kids gave similar ratings for all three species, and agreed that people scored higher on these counts than dogs, who scored higher than pigs. “Yet despite this,” the team notes, “children and adults gave different moral judgements, which suggests that perceived intelligence and sentience does not fully account for moral judgements.”

So why do adults have a much stronger pro-human bias? The team suspect that this is something that is learned relatively late in childhood. “Adolescents may learn and internalise the socially held speciesist notion — or ideology — that humans are morally special and deserve full moral status, whereas animals do not,” they write.

They do note, however, that their groups of US-based, primarily white, English-speaking participants from mostly urban areas is not exactly globally representative. It would be interesting, of course, to explore whether kids who grow up on farms, say, have different ideas about the relative importance of particular animals vs humans. 

Given my son’s (not unexpected) reaction to the dog vs people questions, the findings on kids are a little reassuring: he’s not unusual in feeling that way. I’m fairly sure, though, that if I’d got more personal, and asked him to choose between saving his younger brother or Dottie, our dog, he’d have gone for his brother, if only for my sake… I can tell him that he’s less “speciesist” than me, at least.

Children Prioritize Humans Over Animals Less Than Adults Do

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest