Laurent Bègue-Shankland reproduces the Milgram test with a fish

Why do we agree to torture an animal, even if it is against our principles and our sensitivity? Explanation by Social Psychology Professor Laurent Bègue-Shankland.

In “Facing Animals. Our emotions, our prejudices, our ambivalence” (Odile Jacob, 2022), Laurent Bègue-Shankland, professor of social psychology at Grenoble-Alpes University and visiting researcher at Stanford University, transcribes and analyzes the results of an experiment performed in the laboratory .

This is the transposition of the study conducted at Yale in the 1960s and conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram, an experience that will subsequently be reproduced in many countries with thousands of people. In the United States, the professor demonstrates that it is possible to force a person to obey an order that violates our beliefs and sensibilities as soon as it appears to come from an authority that is considered legitimate. During the so-called “Milgram” experiment today, volunteers mostly agree to send very high electric shocks (450 volts) to a person (an actor) by order given by a scientist. Milgram then concludes that an individual exposed to an authority figure would easily turn into a powerless agent, a mechanical and blind cog in the social system.

In 2021 in France, Laurent Bègue-Shankland reproduced the experience by replacing the tortured man with a fish with one purpose: to show that the cultural legitimacy of science was a crucial dimension and, above all, to reveal the individual profiles and circumstances that favor a fall . in our empathy for them. Interview with Laurent Bègue-Shankland, who puts the finger on the ambivalent nature of our relationship with animals and by analyzing our feelings and prejudices.

Why the choice of fish in your experiment?

Laurent Begue-Shankland : Nearly 750 people participated in this experiment, which was then presented as the test of a cognitive stimulus on a 50 centimeter fish (actually a robot) in an aquarium. Participants had to successively inject 12 doses of a molecule that was supposed to promote the animal’s learning, but which gradually intoxicated it … Fish is certainly not the best candidate to test human empathy. Its fluid world, its appearance has nothing in common with us. The surface of water is a limit to our empathy. Work recently done at the Statens Naturhistoriske Museum has also shown that the older the point of evolutionary separation of a species from ours, the weaker the empathy for it felt. We are more sensitive to primates or foxes than to frogs or jellyfish. This is mainly because the species closest to us are morphologically more similar. As soon as we can give a face to animals, identify ears, a mouth, eyes, this promotes the triggering of empathy. We can therefore predict empathy for animals using purely biological criteria. But not only that: culture dictates to us which species deserve our consideration and which others deserve our consumption. Depending on the time or place, a cat, a dog or a bear will be honored, hunted or boiled by human communities. As for our animal “victim” during the experiment, its large size, its highly visible eyes, and the false audible and visual heart feedback that informed participants about the effects of the toxic product created a situation that could not leave emotionally indifferent . Simulating the behavior of a mammal would probably have been technically more difficult. It is certain that the participants who decided to sacrifice the animal would have been fewer.

What results have you achieved? How did they hit you?

LB : Despite the animal’s signs of distress (and the robot), 53% of the participants activated the 12 buttons, thus deliberately killing the animal that was swimming in front of them. While 20% flatly refused to start (mostly women but also vegetarians), 1% to 4% gave between one and eleven injections. To measure the effect of support for the authority of science on behavior, I gave participants a map aimed at initiating a disposition either favorable or unfavorable to science. In the pro-scientific state, participants were asked to write down three things they thought were important about science, then three things they liked about science, and finally three things they had in common with scientists. Conversely, in the ‘critical of science’ state, they were asked to write down three things that bothered them about science, three things that they did not like, and three things that separated them from scientists. The comparison of the behavior of the individuals in these two groups confirmed that those who had been placed in the “pro-science” group administered significantly more doses of the toxic product in the aquarium than those in the “critical of science” group.

We like slaughterhouses to be terrible, but we do not like a rib steak. Why ?

LB : To overcome the cognitive dissonance that this contradiction generates, we avoid seeing the animals behind what we extract from them (fat, bones, flesh, skin). The remoteness and invisibility of places and the violence at slaughter, the disappearance of whole bodies from stalls, party tables or cookbooks, removal from the plate of anatomical parts referring to a real animal (which has eyes, ears), advertising development of farmed animals rural and happy destiny, all this makes it possible to avoid the ambivalence of meat consumption. The magic of marketing culminates in what is called “suicide food”: grinning animals, pigs or chickens begging us to taste them! In a recent study illustrating the phenomenon of “de-animalization”, researchers showed participants images of lambs or pigs being cooked and placed on a tray. Some of them were shown animals without heads and others whole animals, then the empathy and the disgust that the thought of their consumption aroused were measured. Not surprisingly, intact animals evoked far more empathy than decapitated animals. The prospect of their consumption aroused increased disgust, especially among women, younger consumers and those from industrialized countries.

How is our relationship with animals a central issue today? How do you see it being linked to capitalism?

LB : Breeding and food use by large herbivores profoundly shaped the economy of human civilizations after their domestication in the Neolithic period. Capitalism has largely thrived on the work and exploitation of animals, as Chicago sociologist David Nibert, for example, puts it. have shown. Domestication constituted a profound transformation that changed the conditions of existence for animals as well as for humans. It has also shaped the relationships between people themselves, who have become more unequal by promoting the accumulation and institutionalization of the wealth gap between them.

In the collective imagination, having empathy for animals is still perceived as something that falls under misplaced “feminine sentimentality”, whereas it is also a feeling defended by Nietzsche … What does it evoke in you?

LB : Just before his mental breakdown, Nietzsche is said to have sided with a workhorse being abused by a brutal haulier. He also writes in his correspondence that “respect for animals is a consciousness which is the adornment of noble men”. But in a letter to his friend von Gersdorff, he also writes that “intellectually productive natures need meat”. Like most philosophers, he embraced the contradictions of his time. In terms of female sensitivity to animals, this is a very intriguing sociological fact. Women almost never hunt (only 2% in France), only rarely practice the butcher profession (10%), and two thirds of vegetarians are vegetarians. Opposition to animal testing is one of the areas where gender differences are most documented. Women are overrepresented there in relationships that have changed little in 150 years. In the 19thand century, three-quarters of the participants in demonstrations in favor of animal women. When it comes to physical violence, there are more men, whether the victims are human or not. In adults, the probability of a woman seriously hitting an animal is 39 times lower than that of a man, and the probability of shooting it with a gun is 45 times lower. I recently conducted a survey of 12,344 students, which showed that of the 7% who had ever intentionally harmed an animal, more than two-thirds were boys. There is no culture where women would have more frequent behaviors with unjustified violence than men with animals. On the other hand, there is no shortage of ethnographic examples where women take care of them and even breastfeed them. Finally, in France, a political party was sanctioned for its disrespect for parity during the 2017 election because it presented 2/3 of the women: it was the animal party!

What do we have to gain by rethinking our relationship with animals? Can a review of our connection with animals be a lever for ecological action?

LB : Our sensitivity to the cause of the animal changes markedly, but it is difficult to predict the forms that our relationship with animals will take in the future. Some of them will be missed. Between 1970 and 2016, the population of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish decreased by 68%. We know that the degradation of ecosystems is an alarming signal for our future, whether it be epidemic risks or future conflicts, which will be linked to the scarcity of certain vital resources. A radical mutation could not come from a notion that consists only in conserving “species”, but from a more differentiated vision of each animal and its own interests. We would have to achieve a less instrumental representation of animals and a richer perception of our coexistence, not only with animals but also with our fellow human beings of this utopia. Because rethinking our relationship with animals also means reviewing the connection we have with otherness.

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