Ly, L. H., & Weary, D. M. 2021. Facial expression in humans as a measure of empathy towards farm animals in pain. PLoS ONE 16(3), e0247808.
People often express concern for the welfare of farm animals, but research on this topic has relied upon self-report. Facial expressions provide a quantifiable measure of emotional response that may be less susceptible to social desirability bias and other issues associated with self-report. Viewing other humans in pain elicits facial expressions indicative of empathy. Here we provide the first evidence that this measure can also be used to assess human empathetic responses towards farm animals, showing that facial expressions respond reliably when participants view videos of farm animals undergoing painful procedures. Participants (n = 30) were asked to watch publicly sourced video clips of cows and pigs undergoing common management procedures (e.g. disbudding, castration, tail docking) and control videos (e.g. being lightly restrained, standing). Participants provided their subjective rating of the intensity of 5 negative emotions (pain, sadness, anger, fear, disgust) on an 11-point Likert scale. Videos of the participants (watching the animals) were scored for intensity of unpleasantness of the participants’ facial expression (also on an 11-point Likert scale) by a trained observer who was blind to treatment. Participants showed more intense facial expressions while viewing painful procedures versus control procedures (mean ± SE Likert; 2.4 ± 0.08 versus 0.6 ± 0.17). Participants who reported more intense negative responses also showed stronger facial expressions (slope ± SE = 0.4 ± 0.04). Both the self-reported and facial measures varied with species and procedure witnessed. These results indicate that facial expressions can be used to assess human-animal empathy.