What Spending Time With Animals Can Teach Us About Empathy

by Dr. Aysha Akhtar

Research shows interacting with animals can help foster emotional intelligence and human connection.

Harry Truman famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog!” Actually, there is much dispute whether he ever uttered those words. But I bet when you just read his supposed quote, you instinctively agreed with it, didn’t you? The quote has a double meaning. Animals might be the only friendly faces in the man-eat-man world of politics. Animals also connect us with one another.They make us more likeable. In the past 150 years, all the US presidents brought animal companions with them to the White House, with the exception of Donald Trump.
Recent studies have shed light on how animals act as social lubricants. Researchers found that strangers were more likely to approach and start friendly conversations with people in wheelchairs if they had animals with them. Animals are icebreakers. They can bring the most unlikely people together for a shared experience, much like David saw with the inmates taking care of the bird who, up until that point, had barely uttered a word to one another.
Animals melt the glaciers people build around themselves. A study of more than 2,500 people in the United States and in Australia found that those with companion animals were much more likely to get to know their neighbors and form friendships than people without animals. On our walks through our neighborhood, Patrick has to stop every time we come across a neighbor with a dog. This inevitably leads us to converse with the neighbors rather than just say a quick hello. A half-hour walk easily becomes an hour. Patrick will say to the dogs, “What a cute doggie! What a pretty boy! Are you having a good walk?” One investigator refers to this as “triangulation” in which a person addresses the animal instead of the human. We do this because animals are safe and won’t quickly reject us. As a result, animals allow us to strip our social inhibitions. Patrick often gets down on the ground and rolls around with the dogs we meet. He’s a friendly guy, but I can assure you this is not something he would do with a human neighbor, even if that neighbor was game.
Get on the ground, chat animals up, play with them — and you have some happy animals and more than a few happy spouses. Or if you are looking to get a date, take an animal with you. In 2008,a male researcher was able to get women’s phone numbers 28 percent of the time when he had a dog with him as opposed to only 9 percent without a dog.
Animals connect us with one another. Part of the reason is that we like people who like animals. We often judge others by how they are with animals. Participants in a study were asked to rate people in drawings on different attributes such as intelligence, friendliness, and healthiness. They rated the cartoon people more positively if animals were in the drawings. Similarly, in a study of college students, participants rated psychotherapists as more trustworthy if they had a dog with them.
How people are with animals gives us insight into their moral character. As early as 1699, John Locke advised giving children animals to care for so that they would “be accustomed from their cradles to be tender to all sensible creatures.” During the Victorian era, child advocates and educators encouraged households to teach children to be kind and responsible by caring for companion animals. Sarah Joseph a Hale, magazine editor and author of Mary’s Lamb, published an essay arguing that for boys in particular, animals are a “great preventative against the thoughtless cruelty and tyranny they are so apt to exercise toward all dependent beings.” She believed that animals can teach people about kindness, love, loyalty, duty, and friendship.
However, these positive attributes can’t be achieved without a healthy dose of empathy. It sparks prosocial behaviors that are intended to help or benefit others, like kindness and altruism. Such actions include giving emotional support, murmuring soothing words, or donating money to worthy causes. Kindness and altruism are the flames of our empathy. Empathy also kindles emotional intelligence. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize and manage the emotions in one’s self and in others to guide behavior. It’s strongly linked with improved social skills and relationships and with greater mental and physical health. Emotional intelligence is a measure of empathy and the ability to understand and connect with others. “Empathy is the fundamental people skill,” Goleman writes. Empathy is so intrinsic to our relationships with one another that we label anyone who lacks it as dangerous and mentally ill.