In the mysterious realm of human emotion, people tend to feel more empathy for a battered pet or child than for a human adult. Whether the adult victims were battered at home or beaten in war, participants in scientific study tend to feel less empathy for a mature human than for dogs and cats and, of course, children. With dogs, previous study has shown the empathetic mechanism of humanity compelled by the nascent nature of the canine face, whose features guise the outer appearance of an animal with a brain one-tenth smaller than its wolf predecessor.

New research presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Society found that maturity matters most when considering the plight of another individual, whether the individual be a member of the human species or its best friend, the dog.

"Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering," said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University. "Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component.”

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In the study, Levin and co-investigator Arnold Arluke, a sociology professor at Northeastern University, analyzed the responses of 240 men and women. Although drawing from a mostly white population between the ages of 18-25, the researchers reported no reason other people would feel differently. In fact, research of this type is often conducted on homogenous populations to better detect causal relationships.

The respondents were asked to relate their feelings of empathy toward victims, including humans, dogs, and cats, randomly receiving one of four fictional news articles about the beating of a 1-year-old child, a thirty-something adult, a puppy, or a 6-year-old dog. All of the stories were identical save for one detail: the victim’s identity.

"We were surprised by the interaction of age and species," Levin said. "Age seems to trump species, when it comes to eliciting empathy. In addition, it appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves while full-grown dogs are just seen as larger puppies."

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That full-grown dogs received more empathy than adult humans, similar to a child, indicates that people see dogs as “dependent and vulnerable, not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids,” Levin said.

Interestingly, respondents showed more or less equal levels of empathy for children and puppies.

While the study compared empathic response to humans and dogs, Levin said the findings would likely hold when comparing humans to cats. “Dogs and cats are family pets,” he said. “These are animals to which many individuals attribute human characteristics.”