Child and SheepWhile no one likes to think of themselves as some sort of moral snob, let’s be honest: Compared to meat-eaters, many ethical vegetarians and vegans do see themselves as having a more compassionate outlook. Where some may see a juicy steak, we see a dead cow. While some think of how good the meat will taste, we contemplate the way the animal suffered on its path to the dinner plate.

Why the difference in perception? It turns out it vegetarians and vegans might just be wired differently than other people. According to Daniel R. Rowes of Psychology Today, a recent Italian study shows that empathy is what really separates vegetarians and omnivores. The study was “based on the observation that vegetarians and vegans tend to base their decision to avoid animal products on ethical grounds.” This is an accurate observation, as Vegetarian Times reported in 2008 that 54 percent of American vegetarians cited animal welfare as the main reason they gave up meat. The Italian researchers wanted to determine if the empathy vegetarians and vegans extend towards animals applied to other humans as well.

To test this, Rowes writes, subjects (20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans) were placed “into a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine” while researchers looked “at the ‘activation’ of different brain areas as subjects view a randomized series of pictures.” As explained in the study’s abstract, some of the pictures were of natural landscapes, while others showed scenes of torture, mutilation, death, and so on. These so-called negative affective pictures involved both animals and humans. Researchers monitored the different neurological reactions to the pictures.

What did the study find? According to Rowes:

The first main finding of this study is that, compared to omnivores, vegans and vegetarians show higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g. Anterior Cingular Cortex and left Inferior Frontal Gyrus) when observing scenes of suffering; whether it be animal or human suffering.

It’s important to highlight that this study shows vegetarians and vegans to be more empathic to both animals and humans. After all, how many of us in the animal welfare community have been accused of “caring more about animals than people?” 

Other studies have come to similar conclusions. According to the journal Anthrozoos, “Past research found that positive attitudes toward animals are positively correlated with human-directed empathy.”

The link between empathy for animals and empathy for humans should come as no surprise. As psychologist Mary Lou Randour wrote in her book Animal Grace, “animals play an important role in teaching children empathy.” She also notes that there is a “cultural pressure to abandon our fascination with animals” as we get older and mature. Essentially, learning to be less empathic towards animals is a step towards maturity in our society. Fortunately, vegetarians and vegans don’t seem to have learned that lesson.

The Italian study on vegetarians, vegans, omnivores, and empathy comes at an interesting time. Scientific American recently reported on a separate study of college students showing that “today’s young people are 40 percent less empathetic than college kids from 30 years ago.” The sharpest drop in empathy occurred in the last nine years. According to the study, today’s students are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

A whole generation with diminished empathy is a scary thought. I guess it will be up to the country’s young vegetarians and vegans to balance out the compassion scales.

They’ve got quite a tough task ahead of them.

Photo Credit: Just Us 3