What Spending Time With Animals Can Teach Us About Empathy

Research shows interacting with animals can help foster emotional intelligence and human connection.

Courtesy of Tatyana Vyc/ Shutterstock
Courtesy of Tatyana Vyc/ Shutterstock

Harry Truman famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog!” Actually, there is much dispute whether he ever uttered those words. But I bet when you just read his supposed quote, you instinctively agreed with it, didn’t you? The quote has a double meaning. Animals might be the only friendly faces in the man-eat-man world of politics. Animals also connect us with one another.They make us more likeable. In the past 150 years, all the US presidents brought animal companions with them to the White House, with the exception of Donald Trump.

Recent studies have shed light on how animals act as social lubricants. Researchers found that strangers were more likely to approach and start friendly conversations with people in wheelchairs if they had animals with them. Animals are icebreakers. They can bring the most unlikely people together for a shared experience, much like David saw with the inmates taking care of the bird who, up until that point, had barely uttered a word to one another.

Animals melt the glaciers people build around themselves. A study of more than 2,500 people in the United States and in Australia found that those with companion animals were much more likely to get to know their neighbors and form friendships than people without animals. On our walks through our neighborhood, Patrick has to stop every time we come across a neighbor with a dog. This inevitably leads us to converse with the neighbors rather than just say a quick hello. A half-hour walk easily becomes an hour. Patrick will say to the dogs, “What a cute doggie! What a pretty boy! Are you having a good walk?” One investigator refers to this as “triangulation” in which a person addresses the animal instead of the human. We do this because animals are safe and won’t quickly reject us. As a result, animals allow us to strip our social inhibitions. Patrick often gets down on the ground and rolls around with the dogs we meet. He’s a friendly guy, but I can assure you this is not something he would do with a human neighbor, even if that neighbor was game.

Get on the ground, chat animals up, play with them — and you have some happy animals and more than a few happy spouses. Or if you are looking to get a date, take an animal with you. In 2008,a male researcher was able to get women’s phone numbers 28 percent of the time when he had a dog with him as opposed to only 9 percent without a dog.

Animals connect us with one another. Part of the reason is that we like people who like animals. We often judge others by how they are with animals. Participants in a study were asked to rate people in drawings on different attributes such as intelligence, friendliness, and healthiness. They rated the cartoon people more positively if animals were in the drawings. Similarly, in a study of college students, participants rated psychotherapists as more trustworthy if they had a dog with them.

How people are with animals gives us insight into their moral character. As early as 1699, John Locke advised giving children animals to care for so that they would “be accustomed from their cradles to be tender to all sensible creatures.” During the Victorian era, child advocates and educators encouraged households to teach children to be kind and responsible by caring for companion animals. Sarah Joseph a Hale, magazine editor and author of Mary’s Lamb, published an essay arguing that for boys in particular, animals are a “great preventative against the thoughtless cruelty and tyranny they are so apt to exercise toward all dependent beings.” She believed that animals can teach people about kindness, love, loyalty, duty, and friendship.

However, these positive attributes can’t be achieved without a healthy dose of empathy. It sparks prosocial behaviors that are intended to help or benefit others, like kindness and altruism. Such actions include giving emotional support, murmuring soothing words, or donating money to worthy causes. Kindness and altruism are the flames of our empathy. Empathy also kindles emotional intelligence. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize and manage the emotions in one’s self and in others to guide behavior. It’s strongly linked with improved social skills and relationships and with greater mental and physical health. Emotional intelligence is a measure of empathy and the ability to understand and connect with others. “Empathy is the fundamental people skill,” Goleman writes. Empathy is so intrinsic to our relationships with one another that we label anyone who lacks it as dangerous and mentally ill.

We prefer empathetic and kind people. We even judge people’s attractiveness based on these qualities. In a study published in 2014, researchers in China randomly assigned 120 male and female participants to one of three groups and asked them to rate sixty photos of women making neutral facial expressions. Two weeks later, the participants were asked again to rate the photos, but this time, one group of raters was given negative personality descriptors about the women in the photos, such as meanness. The second group was given positive personality descriptors such as kindness. A control group was shown the same photos without any descriptors. In the first experiment, all three groups similarly ranked the photos for attractiveness. However, in the next round, the group shown the photos with positive personality descriptors ranked the faces much higher in attractiveness than the other two groups. The group given negative descriptors ranked the photos the lowest in attractiveness. In other words, as the researchers wrote, “we find that ‘what is good is beautiful.’”

Although this study has limitations (it only looked at a narrow demographic of Chinese women’s faces between the ages of twenty and thirty), its findings support a growing series of studies that have revealed that we like people who are ethical. For example, researchers at the University of British Columbia suggest that, as early as five months of age, our attraction to kindness is evident. They found that infants preferred a puppet who showed kindness in a puppet show over a mean puppet. We gravitate toward empathetic people. In turn, those who show greater empathy tend to be more successful in life. In a study published in PLoS ONE, preadolescent children who extended kindness to others were generally happier, in better relationships with others, and more popular.

Fortunately, empathy isn’t a scarce commodity. There’s plenty to go around. Empathy is likely a mixture of nature and nurture, influenced by childhood experiences. Nevertheless, it can still be learned in those who developed little empathy early in life. We can strengthen our empathy like a muscle.

School programs, such as social-emotional learning programs, have proven successful in teaching empathy to children through lessons in kindness, relationship skills, and managing emotions. Teachers and therapists have also been using animals to promote empathy development in children — not only toward animals, but also toward other humans. In a yearlong school program in which children were randomly assigned to receive either lessons in kindness toward animals or to a control group, psychologist Frank Ascione found that children who learned empathy through animal companionship also showed greater empathy toward other humans. The stronger the bond a child has with an animal, the greater their empathy and social competence. Other school-based programs show that children learn empathy and become less aggressive and violent by being with animals. And there is growing evidence that for even the most violent adults among us, animals bring out their better human selves.

Excerpted from Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy and Our Shared Destinies by Aysha Akhtar.  Published by Pegasus Books.  © Aysha Akhtar. Reprinted with permission.

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