Skip to content
Guest Bloggers

Changing Minds about Nonhuman Animal Rights

By Peggy Rothbaum Ph.D. LLC

Through Nov. 1, 2021, Dr. Rothbaum will donate all proceeds from the sale of her new book, which includes illustrated color pages dedicated to whales, apes, dolphins, and elephants, to the Nonhuman Rights Project.

As a practicing psychologist, trained researcher, and NhRP supporter, I have long been interested in the complex question of how to communicate effectively and change minds in the everyday world, generally speaking and specifically in relation to nonhuman animal rights. In the essay that follows, I integrate research and insights from cognitive and developmental psychology, applied psychology, psychotherapy, philosophy, current events, the work of social activists, and my own personal experiences to consider this complex issue ahead of the NhRP’s historic hearing in Happy’s elephant rights case.

Making up minds

How do we make up minds and how do we change them? The making up our minds part is relatively simple to explain and understand. It’s clearly researched and documented: we learn. Early in our lives, parents, other caretakers, and others in the environment show us, modeling reactions and interactions with the world. Children adopt, copy, or assimilate what they are modeled and make it their own. They learn what to expect and believe and how to interact with society. In terms of nonhuman animal rights, having a companion animal as a child, or parents who appreciate nonhuman animals, could assist in setting the stage for appreciation of the inherent dignity and needs of other beings, including nonhuman animals.

Development includes what happens to children themselves as well as their responses to what happens to other people or what other people do or say. Cognitive development includes problem-solving, decision-making, reading, communication, questioning, imagination, and creativity. Emotional development lets us learn to examine our own emotions as well as consider those of others. Moral development includes learning the difference between right and wrong, which we partially understand because our cognitive development has allowed us to consider choices and reactions for ourselves and to see the perspectives of others. This leads to empathy. Developmental skills converge on the ability to understand and experience the world in a way that includes the perspectives of others.

A child waters a plant with a small dog sitting nearby.
A child waters a plant with a small dog sitting nearby.

Given the above thoughts, it might seem that the process of making up and changing our minds should proceed logically—that we should make decisions based on facts, and we should change our minds based on facts. However, research has shown that we make decisions based on subjective and personal perceptions, such as emotions, intuition, and some deliberate thought. We are influenced, not just in early life but also as adults, by the opinions and actions of others as well as our own perceptions, emotions, and experiences. We create narratives or scripts about our lives, which become our internal belief systems—sort of a personal map of how to filter and understand our experiences, plan and live our lives.

Resistance to changing minds

As part of these personal narratives, we develop stereotypes, have our own perceptions, demonstrate unacknowledged biases, consider risks or perceived risks to ourselves, and passionately retain old irrelevant information. We have “confirmation biases”—we look to confirm with new information what we already believe. We have “blind spots,” where we do not see what is right in front of us. In groups, we do not see variability of perceptions, and this interferes with judgments and decision-making. We see these phenomena with politics, fads, cults, art, social media, activism, investment decisions, health decisions, marketing, and more in everyday life. Research shows that conclusions, even in science, are influenced by beliefs, perceptions, and interpretations. We can even be influenced to perceive colors in certain ways. Research shows that emotional habits and beliefs, whether conscious or unconscious, are not easy to change. Overall, presenting people with facts tends not to change minds. We resist change.

In psychotherapy, we see that the narrative maps that we create become a lens by which to view our world, called, aptly, “transference.” The maps from one situation or relationship are “transferred” onto another situation or relationship. When the transference is negative, it can create vulnerabilities and developmental failures. There are many examples in everyday life, such as a woman who was abused in childhood and marries an abusive man. People often wonder in amazement why someone who grew up in an alcoholic family marries an alcoholic. It is because it is familiar. We form emotional habits. This is all at least partially unconscious. Research has shown that transference is a part of normal life and occurs both within and outside of psychotherapy. Negative transference often grows stronger over time if left unexamined.

Resistance to changing minds about the suffering of nonhuman animals

Not just as individuals, but as a society, we also have incredible resistance to even acknowledging or believing the suffering of other human beings. We want it to simply go away. It makes us feel uncomfortable. It is as if we are allergic to this kind of acceptance. So, we deny it and distance ourselves from it, thus limiting or closing avenues of change. If we have so much trouble acknowledging human suffering, then doing so for nonhuman animals is even more of a challenge. I see this myself with the Facebook page of my co-authored book, Taking Care of Little Snoogie: A Story About Pet Loss for Adults. When I post negative, unhappy, or stories about animal suffering to raise awareness, I inevitably lose a few “likes.”

Changing minds through psychotherapy

Lack of understanding could be transference from our own experiences or perceptions and can be further transferred in the way we view the suffering of nonhuman animals Although nonhuman animals have many ways of telling us that they are sentient and are suffering, we do not hear them. Research has shown that they are capable of recognizing themselves, solving complex problems, forming enduring bonds, feeling emotions, and communicating among themselves. Nonhuman animals cannot speak or advocate for themselves when their natural ways of living are disrupted. They cannot confront us about their suffering. They cannot grow up, seek psychotherapy, and go on to have happy, successful, loving lives. Those of us who can speak up for them must do so. We must educate the public about their suffering–for example, how Happy suffers in solitary confinement in a zoo exhibit and the detrimental effects of deprivation of her right to liberty.

Happy stands before a gate in the Bronx Zoo elephant exhibit.
Happy stands before a gate in the Bronx Zoo elephant exhibit. Credit: Gigi Glendinning

As a practicing psychologist, my ongoing task is to work with people who wish to develop further and change. This includes emotions, behaviors, social interactions (work and personal), problem-solving, and decision-making. Our job, the patient and me, is to retain the core of the patient’s unique self while improving the relationship with the world.

Change is hard and sometimes frightening. We are tempted to deny and resist the condition that the French scholar of development, Jean Piaget, called “disequilibrium,” which is feeling instability and uncertainty while we are changing. Old ways of thinking don’t work anymore but we haven’t mastered the new ways yet. Similarly, cognitive and social psychologists talk about “cognitive dissonance.” This is a state of discomfort or tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that don’t work together, such as “I am a kind person” and “I hit my child.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pains to deep disquiet or pain. People don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce dissonance, sometimes creating change, sometimes contributing to resistances. And we have what psychotherapists call “defenses.” We have developed emotional habits that once protected us that we are reluctant to abandon, even if a new way might be better. This makes us wonder what else could we be wrong about, which can be upsetting. So we deny and defend the old ways. We resist—a sign that we have reached a point where we have never been able to get past before. Most of this process is unconscious.

Change comes from growing past our resistances, defenses, and resolving disequilibrium or dissonance, which can take multiple forms. Talk therapy makes the unconscious become conscious. The process mirrors regularly occurring growth and it can be also uncomfortable and bewildering. Abandoning old ideas is hard. Old ways of living aren’t working, but new ways look scary, overwhelming, difficult, and maybe even threatening. They seemed to have been working just fine. During the growth process, we may feel shaky and uncertain, but hopefully more open to change. To grow, we also have to learn to imagine ourselves in the position of the other, including nonhuman animals, even when this might make us feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. Unfortunately, in our society it is a new way of thinking. In time, sometimes with a lot of hard work, we come to know that the new ways are better, just as we can do in our thinking about nonhuman animals.

Changing minds

So how do minds change? All of my seemingly divergent sources converged and agree that when it comes to changing minds, lecturing, attacking, or arguing with people does not work. Threatening someone’s worldview only strengthens their resistances. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We have to appeal to people with compassion and kindness, even, for example, if we find their callousness towards nonhuman animals unfathomable, or even infuriating. We have to be careful not to overwhelm them and awaken their “allergies,” such as to abuse or suffering. We must speak in a non-condescending manner to concerns of ordinary people. We need to start “small” so that we do not overwhelm people, although the issue of nonhuman rights can indeed feel overwhelming. In order to change, we often need help feeling more comfortable with new ideas that are presented.

NhRP supporters rally for freedom and sanctuary for Happy the elephant outside the Bronx Zoo in 2019.
NhRP supporters, including Dr. Rothbaum (with her right arm raised), rally for freedom and sanctuary for Happy the elephant outside the Bronx Zoo in 2019.

Just as we don’t learn as children by ourselves, we don’t change our minds by ourselves. We live in society and learn from interactions. We are often drawn to “group think,” which can be limiting or polarizing by encouraging us to retain certain ideas, but groups can also be helpful in terms of changing minds. We often shift our opinions toward a consensus. We often learn more and share more ideas in collaborative community efforts and on teams. None of us have all the knowledge we need. Because of the aforementioned blind spots and defenses and transference, we don’t know what we don’t know or that we don’t know everything, and groups can help us see better. When we help each other recognize our resistances and biases and make it pleasant to work together, we give each other social support and can promote changing minds. There are different approaches to changing minds in groups. For large audiences, powerful stories by individuals who embody the stories are most helpful. For smaller groups, more individualized interactions and personal stories are powerful. We need to translate this general research knowledge into practical ways to change minds about nonhuman animals.

Recognizing the need to understand the challenge of change is a ubiquitous issue seen and expressed in different ways across disciplines. In some interesting and particularly user-friendly research by Sloman and Fernbach, experimental cognitive scientists, they asked people to explain particular social policies. They found that most people could not explain policies or demonstrate as much understanding as they claimed. Trying to explain their position reduced their assessment of their understanding, but also made their views less extreme. Causal explanation and thinking about consequences took them “outside their belief systems,” thus opening up the opportunity to learn. It “shattered illusions” and helped them think other perspectives. Asking people to focus on their own perspectives kept them focused just there. Conversely, asking people to explain their beliefs and how they impact society—for example, asking them about why nonhuman animals don’t need rights—might help them to see the error in their thinking. Grant points out that we need constructive questioning and conversation where we seek out common ground. Not overwhelming others with too many points at once is crucial. Milkman writes that we need to identify and account for the forces of opposition, the engineer version of resistance. It is often hard to understand why other people are resistant. Why won’t the zoo let Happy go? It’s clear that she is suffering. There is a sanctuary that will welcome her. What needs to happen so that they can admit their error and change their minds? What is in their way emotionally and contributes to their resistance? What can be said or done to make it more comfortable for them to let her go?

There are many reports of changing minds person to person or by individual examples. Finding alignments and points of agreement or commonality promotes connecting with people. The initial attempts could be on any topic: family, hobbies, or anything that can open the door to conversation and personal connection. Ask questions about being human. There are many stories about racists having personal contact with the object of their hatred who often come to see commonalities. With animals, stories about therapy, K-9, guide and rescue dogs may help people see and relate to their inherent value and dignity. Contact with a sweet, affectionate dog may overcome childhood transference from a dog bite. Telling stories about dogs comforting the elderly and children in hospitals makes the point that animals are intelligent and make contributions to our society. We need to also consider real-world current events and talk about causal connections. For example, there has been a lot in the press about the damage to the environment and human health that occurs as a result of endangering bees. Watching videos of apes and their families points to similarities with humans and their obvious intelligence. Their fingers are so much like ours and this visual is incredibly compelling. When we pollute the ocean, it affects nonhuman life, but it also affects the air, water, crops, and health of humans and is thus a potential way to lead into discussion. The recent story about a grieving mama orca carrying her deceased baby for days is very relatable. Nonhuman animals grieve, love, and feel pain as do human animals.

Although facts and knowledge do not always change minds, when combined with some information about suffering (not too much, least we awaken and activate our “allergies” to the suffering of others ) the campaign to stop unnecessary and cruel industry of animal testing has had some successes. We should not assume that everyone has the same knowledge base and that education about facts never works. This particular campaign includes education. Under certain circumstances, we may find it easier to change our minds about “facts” that are “rational” and require “effort” than decisions made primarily based on emotions or are more “automatic,” for topics in which we don’t have a lot of personal commitment.

Going forward with nonhuman animal rights

We must change minds away from viewing nonhuman animals as objects, with no feelings, no bonds with each other, no cognition, no sentience, and no rights. Autonomous nonhuman animals like Happy, for example, have a fundamental right to bodily liberty. In the words of Dr. Joyce Poole in support of Happy’s case, “Human caregivers are no substitute for the numerous, complex social relationships and the rich gestural and vocal communication that occurs between free living elephants.” We must develop a new way of thinking for humans who do not yet recognize the inherent dignity and worth of nonhuman animals. We must build on what we already know about human development. We know how misunderstandings develop; now we must create disequilibrium, or cognitive dissonance, in other humans. We must overcome confirmation biases, defenses, and resistances and create a new paradigm, or framework. A new way of thinking and feeling. We must help others create new narratives or stories about other life forms and their intrinsic value. We must do this in a way that Sloman and Fernbach and Grant have demonstrated is effective and that is effective in psychotherapy. We have theoretical, philosophical, clinical and research knowledge which must be translated into action plans to benefit nonhuman animals.

In addition, we need leaders and grassroots efforts, as do all social movements. Leaders help to disseminate information and serve as role models. Legislation helps to make societal changes and produce changes in organizational structure. We need to use direct influences such as speaking and indirect influences such as art, music, inventions, scientific theories, all of which help to disseminate ideas. The media helps by capturing stories and telling them to wide audiences. Many significant changes in our country have begun with grassroots efforts. MADD, anti-bullying, Amber Alert (missing children), Megan’s Law (sexual predators), ADA, suffrage, anti-smoking, curbing and cleaning up after dogs, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marriage equality, criminalizing domestic violence and child abuse, environmental protections, all have a significant grassroots component. They all involved, in addition to grassroots efforts, powerful leaders, legislation, publicity, coalitions, community and teamwork, compelling personal stories, and appeal to people of many different walks of life and political viewpoints, According to Duhigg in The Power of Habit, “Movements don’t emerge because everyone suddenly decides to follow the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change the participants’ sense of self.” (p. 244). Milkman points out that change requires understanding, time, persistence, repetition, and vigilance to overcome our internal obstacles.

Using converging information, we need to continue our efforts individually, in groups, in media, with leaders, with passionate examples, using techniques learned from psychotherapy, research and add other ways of learning what we need to know to effect change. We must connect facts with emotions. Research needs to be supported and increased using nonhuman animals as the focus. We also need ways to evaluate change and the permanence of new ideas.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” To treat them with respect and dignity is the optimal achievement of human emotional, cognitive, and moral development. We don’t treat the vast majority of nonhuman animals this way now. This is why we fight for Happy and all who suffer as she does. We have a lot of work to do. I know that I stand more than ready to do my part.

You can find the references for this essay here.

Sign up to receive the latest updates on our mission

Find out about opportunities to get involved, breaking news in our cases and campaigns, and more.