Using facial expression to assess human empathy toward farm animals undergoing painful procedures


Source: University of British Columbia

New research by UBC researchers Lexis Ly and Dan Weary, today published in PloS One, shows that human facial expressions can be used to assess human-animal empathy. Facial expressions have been used previously to evaluate human-human empathy, but this study provides the first evidence that facial expressions provide a valid method to assess human empathy toward animals.

The researchers showed participants videos of cows and pigs undergoing painful but common farm animal procedures (e.g. disbudding, castration, tail docking) and ‘control’ videos (e.g. showing animals standing), and recorded the facial expressions of viewers. These participants showed more intense negative facial expressions (e.g. indicative of pain or disgust) when viewing the painful procedures versus when viewing control videos. Furthermore, the intensity of these facial expression was correlated to with the participants’ self-report of their emotional response.

These results indicate that facial expressions can be used to assess human empathy toward animals; this methodology could be automated and has a wide range of potential applications, from assessing consumer perceptions of farming systems to better selection of animal care workers.

Read the full paper:

See a video of one participant’s reaction to a video of cattle branding: