The Effects of Humans and Animals in Distress on Empathy: A Stroop Interference Study

Allison O'Leary, Danielle Smith, Jennifer McDonald, Lauren Hamachi, Alexandra Roth


Although previous research has demonstrated that the capacity to empathize with animals in distress is a strong predictor of pro-social behaviors, little is currently known about the differences between empathic concern towards animals versus humans. The current study examined the effects of animals and humans in distress on Stroop interference in individuals with higher versus lower levels of empathy. To our knowledge, this is the first research to utilize the Stroop interference procedure to assess empathic concern in these areas. For the analyses, data were available on 36 undergraduate students with a higher level of empathy and 33 students with a lower level. Participants’ responses (errors) and latency were assessed using a Stroop Interference Task, which involved identifying the background color (red, green, yellow, or blue) of a series of five types of images: human distress, human non-distress, animal distress, animal non-distress, and pure color. Empathy was assessed using the Emotional Empathetic Tendency Scale. A series of t-tests revealed that the higher empathy group tended to make fewer errors compared to the lower empathy sample for human distress, human non-distress, and animal non-distress conditions. The two groups also differed significantly in latency for the human non-distress condition and differed at a trend level in latency for the human distress condition, with participants in the higher empathy group exhibiting a faster reaction time compared to those in the lower empathy group. Findings from this study may potentially increase our understanding of the role of human and animal distress on our cognition and empathic concern in everyday life.


Empathy, Animal distress, Human distress

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