A recent study shows vegetarians and vegans may be more empathetic than people who eat meat. This study, by Filippi et al., is making it big in the blogosphere and in vegetarian circles, but the idea that people who don't eat meat are fundamentally different than those who do is nothing new. A 2007 study by Gale et al. found that people with higher IQs as children are more likely to become vegetarian and vegan as adults.
These studies can be wonderful for the vegetarian/vegan (veg*n) community, providing individuals with a sense of pride in who they are: smart, empathetic, and compassionate people. They can also be risky if their messages are reduced to an argument of biology over sociology. In the nature versus nurture debate, the question becomes: are veg*ns simply wired differently from the start (nature) or does their unique outlook on the suffering of others develop due to the life experiences that led them to decide not to eat meat (nurture). If it is the former, and veg*ns are simply born that way, the argument could be made that animal protectionists should cease to engage in veg*n outreach because trying to convince others to stop eating animals is useless, either you are hard wired with the neurons that tell you eating other animals is wrong or you are hard wired with the neurons that tell you it is normal.
The study by Filippi et al. shows clearly via fMRI images of the brain that there is a fundamentally biological difference between people who eat animals and those who don’t. However, it is not clear if these differences existed before the vegetarians and vegans eliminated meat or animal products, respectively. The study by Gale et al. indicates that there may be a difference from the start. They examined people as children, before veg*nism entered their lives, and those who chose as adults to abstain from eating meat were fundamentally different than those who didn’t; on average, the veg*ns had higher IQs as children than did omnivores. However, this is not the full story.
Nurture also has a lot to do with individuals’ predilections for eating animals. The way that people interact with animals influences the way they think, and this starts in childhood. Research by Beth Daly and L. L. Morton in 2009 found that adults who currently have pets and those who had pets as children rated higher on empathy scales than those who either do not have pets or never had pets. This suggests that relationships with companion animals may actually teach children to develop empathy.
Humans’ perceptions of animals are also influenced by familiarity with animals and the perceived functions and roles of the animals. For example, Slovakian children who lived with companion animals had more positive attitudes and more knowledge about animals, even animals like beetles, wolves and mice, that some consider scary or unpopular. Other research shows that farmers view relationships with animals at the species level while people who live with companion animals view relationships at the individual level. This indicates that people develop ideas about animals based on the roles that animals have in their lives.
In the end, there is support for both the nature and nurture argument; in some ways the average veg*n is different from the average omnivore, at the same time there are clear social factors such as developing an interpersonal bond with a companion animal that influence attitudes toward animals and the decision not to eat them. An important take home message for animal protectionists is that there is a real need for continued advocacy and outreach, particularly among children. Another important take home message is that, if you are a veg*n, there is a pretty good chance you are a smart and empathetic individual!