Human animal relations in the new normal

Susan Brannick on a potentially neglected field.

Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the destruction of planet Earth, and had made attempts to alert mankind to the danger; but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for titbits, so they eventually gave up and left the Earth by their own means before the Vogons arrived. - The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

To paraphrase (or butcher, depending on your view), the words of Winnicott; there is no such thing as the human race. That is, similar to the baby that cannot live without a caregiver, the human race cannot live outside of the planet’s ecosystems or natural natural world. Whilst ecosystems may not care for us strictly like a mother, (but the conceptualising of nature as ‘mother’ supports the metaphor), the natural world provides us with the necessities of plants, animals and minerals for survival.

In this respect we occupy a space on the food chain with the rest of the animals on the planet. The World Health Organisation (WHO) acknowledges the centrality of this relationship and underscores its importance for health with its concept of ‘One Health’, the idea that human health is linked to the environment and animal health. Whilst this assumption of dependence seems obvious, our collective human use of the planet’s finite natural resources belies a striking denial of this truism.

The insidious spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19 has tragically infiltrated this denial, and shoved truths of dependence and embodied fragility, to the forefront of our awareness. The virus is hypothesised to have originated in bats (Anderson et al., 2020) and increasing rates of transmission of coronaviruses are linked to the destruction of habitats via deforestation (e.g Afelt et al., 2018). 

According the Centre for Disease Control three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that affect humans originate in animals. The unfortunate pangolin, considered to be one of the world’s most trafficked wild animals, has been linked to the spread of Covid-19 (Zhang, Wu & Zhang, 2020). The Chinese government banned the sale of wild animals in January 2020, due to concerns that the virus transmission was connected to wildlife markets. 

Given the current calamitous consequences of our relationship with animals, does our ‘new normal’ herald an urgent call for the mobilising of more psychological research to better understand Human-Animal Relations (HAR), before the next animal derived pandemic hits?

Slow to investigate?

Social psychology researchers Amiot and Bastion mused in 2015 that ‘the discipline of psychology has been remarkably slow to investigate HAR’. A large proportion of psychology’s contribution to animal studies could be viewed as the instrumentalisation of animals, i.e. animal research as a means of better understanding the human experience. Which is not to disparage this research; it is needed. However, the relative silence on the nature of how and why we (as a species) interact with animals as we do is an interesting pocket of scarcity in the busting field of psychological research. 

The pandemic has brought many intriguing HAR research questions to the fore. For example, how are some animals e.g. bats, categorised as ‘food’ and others as pets? What mechanisms explain why the majority of the world eat animals that can (certainly in globalised western contexts) entail suffering of farmed animals on a gargantuan scale, and yet simultaneously baulk at the mistreatment of one domestic animal? How can we understand the mistreatment of animals outside of offending populations? While the UN reported that nearly 1 million species of plants and animals were threatened with extinction in 2019, how is it that psychology’s dominant discourse on extinction remains with the legacy of Pavlov’s dogs?

Psychological research in HAR has begun to gather pace in the last few years, (e.g. Bastian & Loughman, 2017; Dhont, 2019) with several theories emerging to contribute answers to these questions.


When specifically considering how our use of animals may be harmful to them, and potentially us, but persists regardless, Festinger’s (1957) seminal theory of cognitive dissonance is frequently cited. This describes the emotional discomfort that people experience when they hold inconsistent attitudes or engage in behaviour that is inconsistent with their attitudes or beliefs. Bastion (2017) and colleagues have expanded this theory to consider how people may reduce this dissonance (e.g. avoid responsibility, diminish the extent to how much their action reflect on the self), and how this process can lead to public health campaigns which seek increase dissonance, backfiring.

Another interesting perspective comes from social identity and social categorisation theories (Amiot & Bastion, 2017 & Herzog, 2010). In which, groups people belong to (and the strength of their attachment to the group), influence how they see themselves and define their identity, which can explain animal related behaviours e.g vegetarian social groups may strongly reinforce norms of aversion to animal cruelty.  

What about our identity in the group of homo sapien? The landmark work of philosopher Val Plumwood is relevant here, both in her critique of what she terms ‘ontological vegetarianism’ (that ‘nothing morally considerable’ should be classified as food or edible); and cautioning against ethnocentrism and decontexutalisation when studying HAR. Plumwood (2000) argues that humans in the west deny our co-location on the food chain, i.e. deny that we can be edible food for other animals. This is manifest in many western burial practices, and popular culture (e.g. vampire and human eating aliens films). Therefore animals can be our food, but we can never be their food. 

Plumwood argues that this distinction allows us to categorise ‘nature’ as inferior to ‘culture’, which has excused us from subjecting animal use to ethical considerations. This theory provides an interesting perspective on current frameworks of speciesism and prejudice models which elevate animals for access to rights, rather than as Plumwood suggests, acknowledging our embodied food chain flesh and integrating nature and culture into a more cohesive framework. If anything, research on dehumanisation (Hodson, 2012) suggests that analogous comparisons of animals to people functions to exclude and denigrate certain groups. 

Herzog (2010) offers a familiar example of categorisation, noting the contrast between the structures for rights and ethics for rodents in his research lab categorised as part of research; with the unregulated extermination of rodents categorised as pests, in the rest of the building (many of whom were research rats to begin with). The irony perhaps is that many of these rats had escaped the lab for freedom, without the knowledge of the implications of their subsequent category change.

So in fact, a simple question about why we treat animals the way we do opens up a vast landscape of psychological theory, including the consequences for categorisation, as well as philosophy, human and animal rights, culture and essentially what it means to be human. If practices such as wildlife trafficking, deforestation and factory farming are truly implicated in human health outcomes, then this burgeoning body of work offers some much needed coordinates of where we may start our journey. 

- Dr Susan Brannick is a Clinical Psychologist in Inflammatory Bowel Disease, St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin 

- See also our collection on animals and psychology. We also have coverage of this topic planned for later in the year…


Afelt, A., Frutos, R. & Devaux, C.  (2018)  Bats, Coronaviruses, and Deforestation: Toward the Emergence of Novel Infectious Diseases? Frontiers in Micobiology, 9, 702

Amiot, C.E.,  & Bastion, B. (2017) Solidarity with animals: Assessing a relevant dimension of social identification with animals. PloS ONE, 12, 

Amiot, C.E.,  & Bastion, B.   (2015)  Toward a psychology of human-animal relations.  Psychological Bulletin, 141(1):6-47

Anderson, K.G., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, I., Holmes, E.C. & Garry, R.F.  (2020)  The proximal origin of SARS – CoV-2  Nature Medicine,   26, 450-452

Bastian, B.  & Loughman, S.  (2017) Resolving the meat paradox: A motivational account of morally troublesome behaviour and its maintenance.  Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21, 278-299

Dhont, K., Hodson, G. & Loughman, S.   (2019) Rethinking human- animal relations: the critical role of social psychology.  Group Processes & Intergroup Relations,  22 (6), 769-784 

Festinger, L.   (1957)  A theory of cognitive dissonance, Evanston, IL Row Peterson

Herzog, H.  (2010)  Some we love, some we hate, some we eat: Why it’s so hard to think straight about animals. New York, NY HarperCollins

Hodson, G., Costello, K.   (2012)  The human cost of devaluing animals. New Scientist, 2895,  34-35

Plumwood, V.  (2000)  Integrating Ethical Frameworks for Animals, Humans and Nature: A Critical Feminist Eco-Socialist Analysis.  Ethics and the Environment, 5 (2) 285-322

Zhang, T.,  Wu, Q.  & Zhang, T.   (2020)  Probable Pangolin Origin of SARS-CoV-2 Associated with the COVID-19 Outbreak.  Current Biology.  30(7):1346-1351

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber