Why We Love and Exploit Animals: An Interview with Kristof Dhont and Gordon Hodson

"We recognized that we were creating the book, in large part, to benefit animals more than ourselves."

Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Interview with Kristof Dhont and Gordon Hodson
Kristof Dhont (left) and Gordon Hodson

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy is a new volume co-edited by Dr. Kristof Dhont (University of Kent, UK) and Dr. Gordon Hodson (Brock University, Canada). This is a groundbreaking book that includes chapters by leading academics and animal advocates on our complicated relationship with animals. I interviewed Kristof Dhont and Gordon Hodson about the book.

The cover of the book Why we love and exploit animals

Zazie: Why did you decide to put this book together?

Gordon: We wanted to READ a book that bridged academia and front line animal activism, but it didn’t exist, so we decided to make it happen ourselves. Rather than write the book ourselves, however, we sought a true diversity of opinion, so we decided to play the role of editors instead, soliciting chapters from people we respected and admired. We are both academics and enjoy academic debates and discussions about animals. But we also both want to improve the lives of animals. Kristof in particular has a foot in the “advocacy” movement as well as in academia; he actively participates in pro-animal or vegan events, and has a wide range of contacts in that world. Personally, I believe Kristof wanted to merge these two aspects, and I was along for the ride, always looking for a challenge and to discover new ways to create something that is greater than its parts. I think we pulled it off rather well, thanks in large part to the tremendous help, support, and insights from the authors themselves.

Kristof: As far as we are aware, our book is also the first of its kind in covering a wide range of topics from the social and behavioral sciences on human-animal relations with a particular focus on the conflicting, and mostly exploitative, behaviors towards animals. As research in this area is exponentially growing, we felt the time was right to bring the discoveries from many of these past and ongoing research lines together in one book. It’s a great and timely resource for academics. Both those who are new to this research area and those who are familiar with it will find a wealth of information in there.

"Our exploitation of animals is systematically linked to our prejudice toward, or exploitation of, other humans"

Another main motivator to put this book together was to have a book that would land on the bookshelves of many non-academics at home. The increased interest in the psychology and social science of human-animal relations and meat consumption is also evident outside the university campuses. We kept this in mind from the moment we started with the project as we saw this as a perfect opportunity to engage with a non-academic audience. The dynamic and engaging character of the book also comes from the mix of types of chapters, with some chapters providing an overview of the most important research findings on the topic, others are opinion chapters or present new ideas, and yet other chapters are written in a dialogue format. 

Why we love and exploit animals: Interview with Kristof Dhont & Gordon Hodson; photo of a chicken
Photo: Gillian Holliday/Shutterstock

Zazie: You approached some big names to write for the book. Did that feel daunting? How do you feel about the response?

Gordon: You’re right, we approached some very big names for this book, from both the academic and advocacy sides of the aisle. We were pleased that so many agreed to be part of the volume, and did so with enthusiasm. (For the names of authors, and the titles of their contributions, visit the book’s website and click on “Content”). We suspect that, like us, they were eager to see such a unique collection of ideas on animals. Indeed, the vast majority of people we contacted agreed to write a chapter.

So yes, it felt daunting. But I think what gave us the confidence to ask such prominent people to contribute is that we recognized that we were creating the book, in large part, to benefit animals more than ourselves. When you care about something deeply you sometimes take bigger risks to make it happen, and it certainly emboldened us to reach high when thinking of potential contributors. The key, I think, is to be pulling together a volume that people want to be a part of, and, even better, don’t want to be left out of! In some ways I suppose it’s like organizing a large music festival – if it’s for a good cause, and you have already brought on board some prominent voices, others want to be included in the event. I think that it speaks volumes that so many prominent writers and thinkers wanted to be included in the book. The tide is clearly turning; after years of trying to convince people that there is value in examining human-animal relations, people are very much recognizing this potential and want to be part of the conversation.

Zazie: What kinds of issues relating to animals are included in the book?

Kristof: As can be inferred from the title of the book, the general issue that runs as a thread through many of the chapters is the way we, as humans, devalue and exploit other animals despite claiming to value and love animals. The book is a deep dive into trying to understand what is going on with us, with our thinking, and with our society that makes this happen. The book unpacks the nature of this paradox by looking into a variety of factors including how we identify with or disidentify from other animals, our distorted thinking about animals, and the role of ideology and culture. A specific issue tackled in several chapters provides an excellent example of this paradox: the production and consumption of meat and other animal products. We have numerous psychological defence mechanisms and cognitive rationalizations in place to justify eating animal products. But also the broader system we live in--the social and economic structures—is created in a way that it often prevents us to change how we treat animals and maintains the status-quo.

"Don’t simply trust your gut feeling about what works as an animal advocacy technique."

The price that we are paying for how we treat other animals has become increasingly clear in recent years. Our current food system is not only fundamentally problematic for the animals, it is also destroying the planet. It is a key driver of climate change and environmental pollution. Not even to mention the huge health risks inherent to eating animals. This latter issue was beyond the scope of our book but given the current Covid-19 pandemic it is impossible not to mention it now. Unless we drastically shift towards a plant-based food system and end animal agriculture, it is just a matter of time before the next deadly pandemic will happen.

Gordon: This brings us to another key issue addressed in the book: the close connection between human-animal relations and human-human relations. That is, people tend to act as though how we treat animals (e.g., as food) is completely disconnected from how people treat other people (e.g., sexism, racism). But the research shows a robust and reliable effect: our exploitation of animals is systematically linked to our prejudice toward, or exploitation of, other humans. For instance, our own research shows that people who exploit animals more also express more prejudice toward ethnic minorities, and that the desire to be socially dominant underpins or explains this relation. (We call this the SD-HARM model). Put another way, those who are more socially dominant in their approach to the world are willing to oppress both human outgroups and animals as an expression of their dominance. Once you oppress one group, it opens the door to oppressing other groups. It is important to recognize that how we treat animals feeds how we treat humans because it can help us to develop interventions to make the world less dominant are more equitable.

Zazie: You say that the book is aimed not just at academics, but also animal advocates. How can the book help animal advocates?

Kristof: We see great value in bringing the insights from academia and advocacy together and also hope that this will happen more often in the future. Fundamental research advances the understanding of the factors that influence our behaviors towards and thinking about animals. Such knowledge seems critical for animal advocates to develop evidence-based, effective interventions. The problem is that advocates and activists often do not have access to research articles. Our book now provides an alternative by reviewing and summarizing much of the existing research in a single volume.

At the same time, several chapters are written by prominent animal advocates, and their ideas are of immediate relevance for animal advocates. But importantly, given that academics rarely reach out to animal advocacy or vegan organizations, academics often lack the input of organizations and activists that would make their research projects more relevant in the real world. By bringing these two worlds together in one book, academics and advocates can learn from one another, and take on board the ideas to develop new research lines or to implement the ideas in new animal advocacy campaigns, and perhaps even start to collaborate.

Zazie: Can you give an example of a lesson for animal advocates that is discussed in the book?

Kristof: Don’t simply trust your gut feeling about what works as an animal advocacy technique. What we have learned from scientific research so far is that human appetites and personal motivations are well safeguarded even against the strongest arguments and most powerful or disturbing images. Psychologically, we are remarkably well-equipped to continue our harmful behavior toward animals and feel okay with it.

Unfortunately, there is a lot that we don’t know yet. There is a general lack of highly quality research on the effectiveness of animal advocacy techniques. Setting up large-scale intervention studies to test the impact of advocacy programmes and determine what the most impactful interventions are, would greatly advance the cause of animal advocacy.

Thank you to Dr. Kristof Dhont and Dr. Gordon Hodson for answering my questions!

Why We Love and  Exploit Animals is available on the publisher’s website, via my Amazon store https://www.amazon.com/shop/animalbookclub, and from all good bookstores.

Check out more interviews with authors, veterinarians, and animal advocates.

Kristof Dhont, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Kent (UK). He is founder and director of SHARKLab, dedicated to the psychological study of human intergroup relations and human–animal relations. He investigates the psychological underpinnings and ideological roots of speciesism, racism, and sexism, and the moral psychology of eating and exploiting animals. He has co-edited Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy (Dhont & Hodson, 2020) and currently serves as Associate Editor for the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations (GPIR) and as Consulting Editor for the European Journal of Personality (EJP). Website  Twitter

Gordon Hodson, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology at Brock University (Canada). His research interests include stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, with a focus on ideology, intergroup contact/friendship, dehumanization, and speciesism. He has co-edited Advances in Intergroup Contact (Hodson & Hewstone, 2013) and Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy (Dhont & Hodson, 2020), and presently serves as Editor-in-Chief at the European Review of Social Psychology (ERSP) and as Associate Editor at Group Processes and Intergroup Relations (GPIR). He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP), and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). Website  Twitter

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 

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