Speciesism. Discrimination of animals

Can speciesism be considered a form of prejudice?

Essay, 2021

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Human relationships with non-human animals are complicated. On the one hand, certain animals are valued as pets, loved and given a standard of living that is better than that of humans in poor countries (Caviola et al., 2019). Archaeologists even found that at one point in human history, dogs were buried with humans for sentimental reasons in some cultures (Day, 1984), highlighting the close bond between humans and their companion animals. On the other hand, farm animals are slaughtered so that their bodies provide meat that humans can consume. The term speciesism emerged and in particular parallels other forms of unjustified discrimination such as racism and sexism (Caviola et al., 2019; Horta, 2010). Philosophers realised the inconsistency in our treatment of animals a while ago (Caviola et al., 2019), now it is time for social psychology to bring the humananimal relationship into its theoretical framework, as this relationship is strongly social and intergroup based (Dhont et al., 2019). This essay will apply various theories from social psychology to the human-animal relationship and argue that speciesism is a form of prejudice. It will conclude by using the findings to develop intervention concepts to reduce speciesism.

Social Identity, Self-Categorization, Generalized Prejudice and Social Dominance Theory Perspective

According to social identity theory, people define their identity based on their group affiliation, which influences their feelings and behaviour. When a person is more emotionally attached to a group, that person tends to think and behave more in line with group norms (Tajfel, 1972). The social identity can be distinguished from the personal identity and is more involved in intergroup processes, while the personal identity becomes more relevant in interpersonal situations (Abrams, 2015). On this basis, stereotyping can be explained by people emphasising both similarities within and differences between ongoing stimuli once these stimuli have been categorized. Hence, the process of categorization, and notjust objective differences in the characteristics of different groups, helps explain why group members are seen in terms of stereotypes rather than as individuals. This phenomenon is also known as social categorization (Tajfel, 1969). While social identity theory has focused on relationships between humans, it can also be applied to human-animal relationships, as humans form social bonds especially with companion animals and the latter often play an important role in people's social lives. In a study on this topic, researchers asked participants to rate a 5-item social identification subscale of solidarity for 25 different animals. The results show that people who express more solidarity with animals demonstrate more moral concern for a variety of different animals and express greater disapproval of animal exploitation (Amiot & Bastian, 2017).

Stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination are basic human tendencies of social categorization, meaning that humans judge other individuals purely based on their group membership (Spears & Haslam, 1997). Furthermore, people categorize themselves into groups as well, leading to a differentiation between ingroup and outgroup (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Prejudices are socially shared within groups and is influenced by group norms in a broader intergroup context. However, individuals differ in the degree to which their personal level of prejudice are aligned with group norms (Cohrs & Kessler, 2013).

Several research studies (e.g., Zick et al., 2008) suggest that who are prejudiced against a social group are often more prone to be prejudiced towards other social groups as well, a phenomenon that is described as generalized prejudice. Research indicates that prejudice occurs when groups have different values, when people perceive each other as different, and when people consider their identity in relation to belonging to certain groups that discriminate against others. Furthermore, research findings suggest that the most promising way to reduce prejudice is the promotion of good relations between groups. Considering that contact between different groups is associated with more understanding, the development of relationships, in particular between individuals, provides an opportunity to reduce prejudice (Abrams, 2010).

Dhont et al. (2020) argue that prejudice against human outgroups follows similar principles as prejudice against animals and that speciesism can be considered as a form of generalized prejudice, since animals are treated and judged based on their species membership. Leite et al. (2019) presented 20 animals in an online study and asked participants to select those for which they felt a moral obligation to show concern. Animals which belong in the same categories (such as companion animals, food animals etc.) were equally selected frequently, while the differences between these categories were bigger. The results show that participants selected companion animals (e.g., dogs and cats) considerably more often than other animal categories. Food animals were selected only half as often. Several studies provide strong evidence that the degree to which an animal was considered to have a mind was related to how worthy it was of moral treatment (e.g., Bastian et al., 2012). Yet farm animals, for example pigs, have similar cognitive abilities to dogs (Marino & Colvin, 2015). This does not logically add up and provides further evidence that animals are judged purely on their species membership, thereby reinforcing the argument that speciesism is a form of prejudice. Bloom (2017) argues that empathy does motivate people to behave more pro-socially, but empathy is like a spotlight that can only focus on the suffering of a small number of people at once. Thus, people will most likely continue favour one individual animal or one species over others. Further research provides evidence that motivated emotional regulation increases insensitivity to mass sufferings, therefore the extent of people's compassion decreases with the number of people requiring help growing, also known as collapse of compassion (Cameron and Payne, 2011). These studies on humans suggest that the same effect may also apply to moral concern for animals, meaning that it would be particularly difficult to develop compassion for farm animals exploited on factory farms.

Another theoretical framework that can be applied to speciesism is the Social Dominance Theory, which states that prejudices in intergroup relations are based on ideological beliefs in group-based dominance, also known as social dominance orientation (Pratto et al., 1994). Research results indicate that people who are higher in social dominance orientation are less likely to believe that humans and animals are similar (Amiot & Bastian, 2014; Dhont et al., 2016), thus justifying exploitation of animals with prejudicial beliefs in order to protect the respective cultural behaviour (e.g., meat-eating) and identity (Bastian & Loughnan, 2016). Everett et al. (2019) compared perceptions of people, who were high or low on speciesism with perceptions of people who were high on other forms of prejudice. Throughout three studies, they found that speciesism correlates with racism and sexism, since all root in the belief that in a social or group dominance over other groups. These findings highly suggest that speciesists hold more general prejudicial attitudes and ideologies, is higher on social dominance orientation and have similar personality traits as racists, sexists and homophobes.

It has become evident that speciesism is a form of prejudice. Animals are categorised and evaluated based on their species membership (Spears & Haslam, 1997). Although people believe that animals with high mental capacities deserve moral concern (Bastian et al., 2012), they nevertheless deny these capacities to certain animals in order to justify inequality and exploitation to preserve human culture and behaviour (Bastian & Loughnan, 2016). Manokara et al. (2020) found differences in animal perception between cultural and religious groups, providing further evidence that animal perception is indeed determined by social and cultural norms. Since speciesism is strongly correlated with other forms of prejudice such as racism or sexism (Everett et al., 2019), it is reasonable to assume that these prejudices share roots in the same fundamental psychological processes. As research on reducing prejudice recommends promoting good relations between groups and in particular between individuals (Abrams, 2010), and speciesism seems to increase over the lifespan due to social influence (McGuire et al., 2020), society should enable interactions between animals and children and educate them early on. Research has shown that it is possible to consider animals as members of one's own ingroup (Amiot & Bastian, 2017). If humans bond with different species and it gets part of human culture to consider them as ingroup members, species-based inequalities can be prevented and speciesism can be reduced in the long-term. However, this approach has its limitations, as these bonding experiences with each relevant animal species must be available to the majority of people.

Terror Management Theory Perspective

According to the Terror Management Theory, humans are very sensitive to thoughts of their own mortality as well as animality and therefore invest in both culture and shared worldviews to reduce the fear of death (Solomon et al., 1991). Those created and shared beliefs and cultural worldviews provide individuals with a sense they are valuable member of a meaningful universe. Thus, their self-esteem increases, which lowers the fear of their mortality (Solomon et al., 2000). In addition, humans tend to deny their biological disposition and distance themselves from other animals because they remind them of their own mortality (Becker, 1973). Marino & Mountain (2015) argue that the denial of death results in the exploitive and harmful relationships of humans with other animals. While Terror Management Theory does not always apply, for example when humans consider companion animals to their ingroup, research indicates that the similarity between humans and animals is not enough to underline them in our way of thinking about animals. It is more crucial for intergroup or in this case interspecies relations whether animals are elevated to human status or humans are "lowered" to animal status. However, the identification with an animal itself is psychologically threatening (Dhont et al., 2019).

While other theoretical frameworks mostly support the claim that speciesism is a form of prejudice, Terror Management Theory provides the first approaches for developing interventions to reduce speciesism. It became evident that animals can be considered as social beings, meaning that people can bond and form ingroups with certain animals. Intervention approaches should aim to upvalue the status of animals by highlighting the 'human' characteristics of animals (e.g., moral competence, intelligence, etc.) rather than emphasising the animalistic attributes of humans, as this would remind people of their mortality, leading them to distance themselves from animals and harm them in order to prove their dominance. But this approach is not without its limitations, because identification with animals is threatening as long as they are seen as inferior. Nevertheless, interventions can be successful if they succeed in helping people to value animal life as much as human life.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Speciesism. Discrimination of animals
Can speciesism be considered a form of prejudice?
University of Kent
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Discrimination, Diskriminierung, Prejudice, Vorurteile, Racism, Rassismus, Sexism, Sexismus, Gruppen, Intergroup, Sociology, Soziologie, Psychology, Psychologie, Politics, Politik, Activism, Activismus, Animal abuse, Tierschutz, Tieraktivismus, Covid-19, Coronavirus, Pandemic, Pandemie, Sozialpsychologie, Tajfel, Social Dominance, Terror Management Theory, Stereotyping
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Duc Minh Vu (Author), 2021, Speciesism. Discrimination of animals, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1004234


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