Eat, shoot, love: why do we eat some animals and not others?

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

Do you feel the same about a shark as you do about a rabbit? Would you eat an alligator? Would you choose to save an octopus? How does that compare to, say, an orangutan or a dog?

A group of researchers in Singapore sought to understand how people perceived animals, delving into how they felt towards different types of species, including those typically viewed as sources of food.

An orangutan baby sits in a tree
Would you save an orangutan? Credit: Rita Enes/Getty Images

Participants in the study were asked to rate 16 animals (including shark, alligator, pig, dog, octopus, rabbit, cow and orangutan) in terms of ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’. Four groupings emerged from the ratings, ‘Love’, ‘Save’, ‘Indifferent’ and ‘Dislike’, indicating how the participants felt towards the species.

The researchers also measured the ethical ideology of participants from the sample group which included vegetarians, animal activists and those who regarded themselves as neither, with those identifying as vegetarians or animal activists tending to hold more ‘absolutist’ beliefs.

“Participants rated the 16 nonhuman animal species significantly differently on dimensions of warmth and competence,” says Dr Paul Patinadan a graduate of James Cook University, Australia and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and now with the National Healthcare Group, Singapore.

16 different animals were grouped into four different characteristics
16 different animals were grouped into four different characteristics, which did not vary much with ethical ideology. Credit: Patinadan & Dillon

However, “people’s ethical ideologies about nonhuman animals do not seem to affect the social permutations they grant to the different species”.

In other words, the way participants tended to feel towards certain species was independent from their own ethical or moral standpoint on them.

Read more: Scrutinising the science of animal sentience

“The current findings suggest that general human feelings about animals might be sourced from mental shortcuts of adaptive social value judgements and permutations,” said Patinadan.

This would go some way to explaining why people often ascribe ‘food animals’ as less sentient and therefore less deserving of rights and moral concern.

Read more: How should we treat a social robot?

Diver and shark.
Do you feel warmth towards sharks? Credit: abadonian/Getty Images

“Understanding the place of our own moral judgments amongst nonhuman animals might help to finally define the nebulous nature of human interaction with the beings that share our world with us,” says Patinadan.

Of future interest to the scientists is a comparison of the results of this research, conducted in Singapore, with a similar study of Western cultures to identify similarities and differences in how each perceives animals from their own cultural contexts.

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