Cat or Hen? The Impact of Narrative Representations of ‘Pets’ and ‘Farm Animals’ on Reader Attitudes towards Non-Human Animals

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Amandus Hopfgarten @AmandusHopfgarten

:classical_building: Affiliation: Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena (Germany)

Title: Cat or Hen? The Impact of Narrative Representations of ‘Pets’ and ‘Farm Animals’ on Reader Attitudes towards Non-Human Animals

Abstract (long version below): Empirical ecocriticism is an emerging field that combines insights from the environmental humanities with methods from environmental communication and the empirical study of literature in order to study the impact of environmental narratives in literature, film, television, video games, and other media on attitudes, emotions, perceptions, and behavior (Małecki, 2019; Schneider-Mayerson, Weik von Mossner, et al., 2020). While still relatively new, the field has already generated significant interest in academia and beyond, with special journal issues and edited collections devoted to it (Schneider-Mayerson et al., 2023), as well as media coverage by the likes of Newsweek or Psychology Today. This interest is mainly due to the exciting output generated by empirical ecocriticism on the potential of stories to move the public on today’s most pressing environmental issues such as climate change, species extinction, and animal welfare (Brereton & Gómez, 2020; Iossifidis & Garforth, 2022; Małecki et al., 2016, 2019; Malecki et al., 2021; Myren-Svelstad, 2023; Sabherwal & Shreedhar, 2022; Schneider-Mayerson, 2018; Schneider-Mayerson, Gustafson, et al., 2020). This symposium focuses on the latter topic, providing new empirical data, both qualitative and quantitative, on the impact of animal stories in video games, literature, and film on perceptions of animals and attitudes toward animal welfare.


:newspaper: Long abstract

For decades, ecocritics have presupposed an impact of literature on readers’ attitudes and behaviours regarding the environment without ever investigating it empirically (Małecki 2019, Schneider-Mayerson et al. 2020). Some research shows that narrative persuasion may have an even greater impact on attitudes than cognitive-communicative measures (Heberlein 2012). Focussing on non-human animals (NHAs) as one of the most salient features of humanenvironment-interaction, this contribution presents a study that tests whether narrative depictions of one suffering NHA cause changes in attitudes towards NHAs in general and whether this impact is mediated by the dichotomisation of NHAs as ‘pets’ or ‘farm animals’. The study was conducted online with German native speakers (n = 432) with the main aim of testing two hypotheses: (1) People who read a story about an NHA being abused and killed will show more pro-NHA-welfare attitudes as indicated by Herzog et al.’s Animal Attitude Scale (AAS) (2015) than people who read a story that involves no NHAs. (2) People who read a story about a ‘typical pet’ being abused and killed will show more pro-NHA-welfare attitudes than people who read a story about a ‘typical farm animal’ being abused and killed. The questionnaire also sampled different aspects of participants’ worldview (e.g. political, religious, social attitudes), transportation, text comprehension and other common intervening variables. Data analysis is currently pending; results will be presented at the conference. This contribution aims to provide insight into whether attitudes towards NHAs are mediated by a depicted NHA’s categorisation, potentially allowing future research to investigate the relation between changed attitudes and induced behaviour regarding NHAs. Just like with climate fiction, being able to determine if and how NHA narratives persuade and influence readers is vital for the numerous activist writers and organisations investing into the potential of literature to change the world for the better.


Heberlein, T. A. (2012). Navigating environmental attitudes. Oxford University Press.

Herzog, H. et al. (2015). Brief Measures of the Animal Attitude Scale. Anthrozoös, 28(1), 145–152.

Małecki, W. (2019). Experimental Ecocriticism, or how to know if literature really works. In S. Slovic et al. (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication (pp. 211–223). Routledge.

Małecki, W. et al. (2019). Human Minds and Animal Stories: How Narratives Make Us Care about other Species. Routledge.

Schneider-Mayerson, M. et al. (2020). Environmental Literature as Persuasion: An Experimental Test of the Effects of Reading Climate Fiction. Environmental Communication, 1–16.

Dear Amandus.

Thank you for the very interesting presentation!

I have three questions, kind of unrelated to one another:

  1. I was wondering about the text manipulation that you used for experimental group B. I’m not familiar with the story (nor text manipulation more generally for that matter), so apologies if my question here seems trivial or openly ignorant. But I couldn’t help but wonder how much (or what kind of) textual manipulation was required in order for the story to be changed into being about a chicken instead of a cat without changing the story too much while also ensuring that it reads ‘authentically’? Was it only mentions of the animals (replacing the nouns ‘cat’ with ‘chicken’) or did it involve descriptions too? And finally, if it involved descriptions, might that confound results to some extent, given the manipulation of text required?

  2. Why do you think that the people with higher income tended to have worse NHA att.?

  3. I didn’t quite understand your comments on the final slide when addressing your finding that there are better NHA attitudes in rural places while also adding that vegans/vegetarians are usually frowned upon in the countryside. Perhaps you can talk more when we meet about this? I’m curious to learn more - thanks!


Hey Nikolai,

thanks for the interesting discussion yesterday and also for your great questions!

  1. You’re right, changing too much could obviously confound results, so I gave this some thought. I chose a primary text with that in mind, so I chose it not only because of the length and the topic but also because it was possible to change the species of the animal without too many or too big changes. There were only few descriptions or specific items that I had to change, so mostly it really was the word “hen” instead of “cat”, “feet” instead of paw, articles etc. (I actually chose to make the story about a hen, not a chicken, because the narrator refers to the cat in the original as female.) Here is a sample excerpt where I quickly translated the original and my manipulation into English:

As I‘m coming into the kitchen, the two little ones quickly hide something under the sofa, but I saw it. It was the red cat. And there was some milk spilled on the floor, and so I knew it all. „You must be mad“, I shouted, „we only have half a litre of milk a day, for four people.“

As I‘m coming into the kitchen, the two little ones quickly hide something behind the sofa, but I heard the quiet clucking. It was the red hen. And there was an apple wedge on the floor, and so I knew it all. „You must be mad“, I shouted, „we only have one apple a day, for four people.“

I piloted the study with about 10 people, some of whom were fellow students of literary studies, and nobody had doubts about the text’s literariness. I still think it’s a proper short story (not any more or less literary than the original), but next time I would have a professional writer and/or literary critic double-check to be sure.

  1. I have thought about this for a bit as well and I think it’s difficult to make sense of this result on its own. Since it wasn’t the core of my interest, I can’t say anything about causality any way. Especially with income, I think it’s likely that this is a kind of co-phenomenon (don’t know the statistical term for it) of a different correlation, for example education, which was also negatively correlated with the AAS. That is because people with higher education usually have higher incomes, the people with higher income might show worse NHA att. not “because” of their income, but “because” of their education. That would obviously leave open the same question for the educational paradigm, but I’m just trying to point out the issues here. As I mentioned in my presentation, I haven’t had the time to go deeper into this and I’m pretty sure I’ll need more sophisticated statistical analyses to disentangle these relations. If anyone who reads this has thoughts on this, I’d be very thankful to hear/read your advice!

  2. Just to complete my answer from yesterday, here is a link to the Chinese study I mentioned:
    If you have any more thoughts or comments on this question or on my remarks from yesterday, I’d be interested to read them.