Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Animal Research and the Social Psych Perspective

I almost didn't get this post out. I got distracted by a request for a movie I can't remember the title of, and completely lost my train of thought between the post over at Dr. Isis and here. But thanks to SciCurious, I finally remembered WTF I was going to say!! YIPPEE!!!

Okay, first, the repost of the comment I made over at Dr. Isis:

I love cats just as much as Dr. J does. I also have cats. I also have a really hard time imagining anyone doing anything mean to animals that are cute. I hate animal abusers and I would punch each and every one of them in the face if I could. I feel the same way about child abusers.

I, myself, personally could never do research involving animals. I couldn't handle it.


Animal research is necessary. "Cute" animal research is necessary. I trust the scientific community to treat the animals humanely and subject them to as little pain and suffering as possible. Scientists are humans too, and the types of people who get off on hurting animals don't get PhDs or MDs.

I don't want to see it. I don't even want to read about it. It's kinda like when you're scared of needles and you're about to have blood drawn - you know it has to happen even though you don't like it, so you look away but with the full awareness of what's going on.

Now, a sample reference for what I'm about to launch into:

Okay. All settled in with your background info? Great. Off we go. 

In psychology, we have found with a fair amount of consistency that when people feel disgust, they become more extreme in their worldviews. Homophobia, anti-abortion sentiments, etc., are all subject to this phenomenon. When people feel disgust, they also feel a greater propensity toward violence that serves to reaffirm their worldview - shooting doctors who perform abortions, hate crimes, blowing up the cars of animal researchers, etc. 

I said above that I don't want to see, hear, think, or read about what may or may not be happening to animals who serve as subjects in research. I, personally, could never engage in that kind of research because I couldn't handle it. 

I hate it. It makes me sad. But it doesn't disgust me. I hypothesize that the difference between the people who just can't stand the thought of animals suffering in any way and the people who attack human beings for the sake of so-called animal "rights" is that the extremists feel disgusted at the thought, and the rest of us just feel sad. 

Also, as I said in my comment, I choose to "look away" from animal research but maintain the knowledge of what is going on. I don't think the extremists are capable of just looking away. In fact, I hypothesize that the kind of disgust that engages embodied moral judgment renders a person unable to look away. 

Willful acts of cruelty against animals are unforgivable, just as willful acts of cruelty against children, the disabled, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations are. All of these are protected by IRBs in their ethics review - they are considered to afford "special" protections because of their vulnerability. 

I think the extremists are forgetting not only the protections that animals are subject to in scientific research, but they are also forgetting that there are no willful acts of cruelty going on. But scientists have been painted as these puppy-bashing, cat-torturing, animal-hating sociopaths in the minds of these people. They have forgotten that you are human beings with hearts, that while yes, you do have a greater tolerance for animals in pain than the average person (you HAVE to), you are not doing it because you LIKE it. 

The extremists have dehumanized you in an effort to reaffirm their worldview. If we were to look at abortion, you would also see that the extremists have reduced women to bodies - to wombs, to temporary housing facilities for baby humans. When disgust is activated as embodied moral judgment, a journey down a slippery slope begins. You believe something is wrong, you are disgusted by it, you feel angry about it, you find a place to direct that anger, you dehumanize what you perceive to be the source, you feel a propensity toward violence, you commit the violence, you justify and feel justified in that violence. 

I wonder if the things these people imagine to be going on inside your labs is a million times worse than what is actually happening. I believe it must be the case. I wonder if there is a way to reduce the disgust by showing them the reality. 

Because I think that's the solution to the problem. The disgust needs to be reduced or eliminated and scientists need to be humanized again in their eyes. Unfortunately, you can't trust these people to come into your labs to actually see what's going on. 

Anyway, back to my main point. Disgust activates in different people for different reasons. I think in the case of Dr. J, she finds herself specifically disgusted by the thought of cats being subject to experiments. If you read through her words, you can almost watch the transition happening:

"sick minded" = signals disgust
"evil" = signals moral judgment
"mo fo bastards" = signals anger
"low life scum" followed by specifics of who qualifies = directing anger
people who abuse animals are "as bad as pedophiles" = beginning to dehumanize

"if I thought anyone strapped one of my cats down and did to them some of the things that apparently go on, I would have no hesitation in what I would do them - it would be extreme but proportional." = propensity toward violence

In order to address this problem and make everyone happy, we first need to figure out how to break the cycle. 


Ambivalent Academic said...

Excellent post JLK!! And a fresh perspective.

I think on some level we all are susceptible to disgust, and the contempt that follows. It's not a bad thing (you're not saying that it is, I'm just talking here). To me, the feeling of disgust is not a moral imperative. Instead, it is an indicator that I now need to RATIONALLY examine what is triggering this feeling of disgust, and whether it is in fact unethical. If it is, what can I do about it? If it is not, then what does that tell me? Is a related circumstance unethical? Was I making poor assumptions?

But then, as a scientist with some training in philosophy, the rational approach is my default. Nonetheless, this feeling of disgust is a helpful signal. It just shouldn't be allowed to run wild, like you said. Disgust = check this out carefully and rationally before allowing things to come completely undone.

DrL said...

Great post!

Very educational. I love your analytical perspective.

Has this been published? If not I think that you could write it up as an article and get it published.

Candid Engineer said...

They have forgotten that you are human beings with hearts

I have been working with animals for 5 years, and even once I got used to it, it remains difficult. Last night, for the first time in a while, I cried as I put down a mouse that was suffering. Sometimes, it's too much for even me, but like you said, I have no choice.

Ambivalent Academic said...

They have forgotten that you are human beings with hearts, that while yes, you do have a greater tolerance for animals in pain than the average person (you HAVE to), you are not doing it because you LIKE it.

I've been thinking about this statement for a while. It's true, but it bothers me a little to acknowledge that yes, when an animal is in pain, I can deal with it. I don't LIKE it, as you said, but I continue to function. I continue to function precisely so that I can make sure that I am not inflicting any/more pain and that I can help an animal out of pain if it does come to suffer. I know a lot of other people who "can't watch". These people do not make good animal researchers for the obvious reasons. They figure this out rather quickly and move onto other positions to which they are better able to do a good job.

Then I got to thinking some more. Veterinarians also must be some of these people that have a higher tolerance for animals in pain - they continue to function even when an animal is truly suffering in order to get that animal out of suffering by the best means possible. Pediatricians have to have a higher tolerance for pain in children than the average parent which is why they can continue to treat a child in pain, when the parents a ball of mush.

I always thought that I was this way because I grew up on a farm. The life and death of animals is an immediate reality, and I personally was responsible for them. Responsible for pulling out a lamb during a difficult birth in order to save both the lamb and the ewe. Responsible for cleaning out the barn and making sure everyone had enough food and water. Responsible for both basic and emergency veterinary care when the vet was still making the 45min drive to reach us. Responsible for making the decision that a beloved horse was in too much pain despite everything we were doing for him, and now it was time to help him go gracefully.

I realized recently that one of my siblings, in spite of the same up-bringing is one of those who "can't watch". She feels just as responsible for the health of those animals as I did, but she just couldn't hold it together when something unpleasant had to be done for the good of one of those animals. I can, and I do.

That doesn't make me any better or worse as a person, it just means that I can do this job. It doesn't mean that I am heartless, and I thank you for pointing that out.

JLK said...

@AA - What a wonderful comment. I wish I had further elaborated in my post on what you brought up - pediatricians and vets, in particular. I had pretty much left it at "the kinds of people who get off on hurting animals are not the kind who get MDs and PhDs."

With a few exceptions, most of us are brought up with very similar aversions to certain things - death, blood, pain, weapons, hurt animals, etc.

But now think back to your junior high science class. You're about a dissect a frog (or a fetal pig, god forbid, as I had to do in AP Bio). Suddenly, the usual "groups" in the class are replaced by new ones:

- The girls who are freaking out and won't touch the thing. (There are always a few, including the cryers and the pukers).

- The boys who are doing it because they have to, but have a pained and grossed out look on their face the whole time, wishing they could freak out like the girls. (This is a pretty big group most of the time).

- The girls who can watch someone else do it, but don't want to touch any part of the frog, because goddamn that's gross. (This was me).

- The girls and the guys who are really into it, thinking it's the coolest thing they've ever done. They use the scalpel and forceps carefully and deliberately, making detailed notes and drawings, and are quietly fascinated by what they see and also do not disrespect the dead animal in any way. (The future scientists like you.)

- The idiots who run around with frog parts trying to scare the cryers, who make their frogs dance on the tray and do other obnoxious things with them. (Who TF knows what happens to these guys....)

The difference between childhood and that point in time is maturity and education. When I was 10 or 11 I wanted to be a marine biologist. I loved marine mammals and imagined myself as an orca expert. I watched Discovery Channel and was glued to the screen.

When I was getting ready to go into 7th grade and knew that dissections were on the agenda that year, my mom said "You know, if you want to be a marine biologist, you're going to have to dissect dolphins, killer whales, and fish." I thought about it, tried the dissections in school, decided I couldn't handle it, and moved on to psychology.

When we're children and our personalities and selves are still in development, we take societal info and make it our own. That's why most children have the same generalized fears and anxieties. This is why the torturing of small animals as children is literally a symptom of severe psychopathology.

But when we get to puberty and start to become teens who are forming their own identity, our aversions begin to change based on who we are. We frame things differently.

In my case, the only pet I have ever had die on me (that literally died in my hands) was a pet gerbil I had about 6 years ago. I cried and buried it in the backyard in a Sleepytime tea box. When my husband used to have to kill rats to feed the snake, I would get really upset and have to go outside. He didn't like doing it either, but it had to be done. My husband LOVES animals. I call him Dr. Dolittle. But he had to do something he didn't like for the survival of another (in this case, an animal.)

I couldn't do it, period. There is something different about who I am as a person from who he is, or who you are. Our limits our different, just as tolerance for own pain is different.

I wonder if forcing students to dissect against their will in school is part of the problem. Those cryers and pukers shouldn't have to do it, because it's creating this idea in their head that science makes people do awful things.

When I found out that in order to take anatomy and physiology in college I would have to dissect a cat or fail the course, I didn't take the class. But in junior high and high school, you don't have that option. Maybe this is where the first seeds of extreme activism lie.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Our limits our different, just as tolerance for own pain is different.

Yes. And this is why I think that there are a lot of researchers who opt out of working on a species that exceeds their personal limits. For instance, I know that I couldn't do work on primates (though I could give them first aid if need be), dogs, cats, and interestingly I have recently discovered that I am not comfortable working with rats. Mice, OK. Rats, no. They appear to know what's going on and that bothers me. I don't want to be personally involved on that level. LOTS of other people are not comfortable working with any critter with fur, but are fine with fish, frogs, and bugs. Still other say no thanks, I'll stick to yeast and bacteria. We all have personal limits and tolerances, and we should respect those limits when we find them - nobody should be nor is forced to conduct research on an animal if it makes them uncomfortable. This is as it should.

But - people who benefit from research conducted on animals should also recognize that these limits are personal and not condemn nor incite violence against other people have different limits or tolerances and therefore are able to do life-saving work for the benefit of all those who can't. This is where I call bullshit (not on you, but on Dr.J, and anyone else who says "these are my personal biases; I know yours are different, but I will impose mine upon you nonetheless."

People of different tolerances and limits should ALL be involved int he decision-making process about how research is conducted. No scientist gets a "carte blanche" as Dr. J implies just because we all have different personal limits and so none of them are valid. However, it needs to be done from a perspective of careful and rational consideration, not inflammatory and violence-inciting rhetoric. I recognize the benefits of the work that is done in all of these species, although I personally would not be comfortable conducting research on primates. Because I care how these animals are treated I educate myself on the research that is done with these species, and try to participate in the decision-making process about that research. Because I and other people and pets that I care very much about benefit directly or indirectly from that research I will not condemn it wholesale, nor will I try to incite violence against just anyone who happens to work on these species.

Ambivalent Academic said...

When I found out that in order to take anatomy and physiology in college I would have to dissect a cat or fail the course, I didn't take the class. But in junior high and high school, you don't have that option. Maybe this is where the first seeds of extreme activism lie.

This is an interesting idea. I will have to think more about this. I agree that for kids this age, and I guess for anyone who doesn't have a tolerance for dissecting a humanely euthanized frog, this would be a very traumatic experience. I'm generally against traumatizing people.

On the other hand, I also think it's a very good thing for people who eat meat to directly participate (or at the very least watch without looking away) in the slaughter of that animal that they will eat. Also, visit that animal (or one of it's herdmates) while it is still alive and witness the kinds of conditions that the animal lives and dies under. It gives you a very very different respect for both the animal, and for the people who raised it for your consumption.

I get that some people can't stomach this. I think if everyone had to do this there would be far more vegetarians. I have done this. I have participated intimately and directly in the birth, life and death of an animal that I named, thought was adorable, and later ate. I am still a carnivore. Because I was responsible for this animal's life all the way through, I know that it never saw cruelty. That makes it OK (for me) to eat it. I know that it never suffered during it's life and I can't make that guarantee about the pork chops wrapped in cellophane that I get at the supermarket.

I would really like to see everyone do this at least once, just so that nobody takes it for granted where the food that they eat really comes from. I guess I feel a little bit the same way about having kids dissect a frog in biology class at least once. Best case scenario you learn some cool biology. Worst case scenario, you won't (or at least shouldn't) take for granted that animals are intimately involved in all the easy-to-forget indirect benefits that we enjoy in our current standard of living. But I also don't like traumatizing people.

But there appears to be a pretty big disconnect for most people - the food that they eat is a cellophane-wrapped pork chop that never had anything at all to do with the cute little pink piglet on the farm. The little white pills that keep their blood pressure down or the cream that keeps their acne at bay or the chemo that gave them another 5 or 10 years of life, never had anything to do with a little white mouse in a laboratory.

Maybe you're right - maybe kids at that age shouldn't have to do dissections if they don't have the tolerance for it. But if that's the case then we need to find a better way to help people make that connection.

Anonymous said...

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Truly yours
Timm Clade

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