Myths used to legitimize the exploitation of animals: An application of Social Dominance Theory

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Social Dominance Theory (SDT) is used as a framework for understanding human attitudes towards the use of animals. According to SDT, people high in Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) prefer a hierarchically stratified society and generate “legitimizing myths” to justify their privileges. To explore whether this human-to-human prejudice theory generalizes to humans' attitudes to animals, relationships were tested between SDO and both personal use and general endorsement of the use of animals. In addition, qualitative data were collected on participants' justifications for luxury (clothing and cosmetics) and non-luxury (food and medicine) uses of animals. In a pilot study, (n = 26) adult women and men at a community pork roast reported distinct and meaningful justifications for animal use. The main study conducted with female and male college students at a university in the southern US (n = 226) revealed small, positive relationships between SDO and participants' personal use (r(226) = 0.15, p < 0.05) and endorsement of the use of animals (r(226) = 0.26, p < 0.001). Qualitative themes in participants' legitimizing myths for the use of animals were similar to those found in the pilot, the most common being Necessity, for both luxury and non-luxury uses. Analyses revealed significant differences in the likelihood of making the other justifications that emerged (Hedonic Pleasure, Religion, Food Chain, Human Nature, Animal Nature, Part of the System) across the luxury and non-luxury uses. Results are discussed in view of prejudice theory and animal welfare advocacy, demonstrating the ease with which social scientific theories of human-to-human prejudice can be applied to human-to-animal prejudice.


Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: September 1, 2006

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