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Proceedings for Pain Management and Humane Endpoints

Opinion Research on Animal Experimentation: Areas of Support and Concern

S. Plous, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology, Wesleyan University

In this presentation I have been asked to discuss American public opinion concerning animal experimentation, to focus whenever possible on attitudes toward pain and distress in laboratory animals, and to highlight areas of support and concern with respect to animal research. I will therefore divide my remarks into four parts: (1) an overview of opinion research on public support for animal experimentation, (2) an examination of public concern over laboratory animal welfare, (3) a discussion of attitudes toward pain-related research regulations, and (4) the identification of several areas of agreement between supporters and opponents of animal research.

Depending on question wording, anywhere from 50% to 80% of the American public expresses support for animal research (American Medical Association, 1989; Foundation for Biomedical Research, 1985; Groller, 1990; Pifer, Shimizu, & Pifer, 1994). This level of support constitutes a decline of roughly 10-20% from 50 years ago, when the first national poll on the topic found an 84% approval rate for "the use of live animals in medical teaching and research" (Roper Center, 1998a). Taken together, then, these polling results suggest animal research is supported by a majority of the public, even though the majority is not as large as it once was.

A simple interpretation of "majority support" may be misleading, however, because it obscures a number of important qualifications. Support for animal research depends heavily on at least three factors: the potential benefits of the research, the type of animal involved, and the level of invasiveness entailed by the experiment. Once these three factors are taken into account, many forms of animal research are not supported by a majority of the public, and some forms are even opposed by a majority. Let me describe a few survey results that illustrate the point.

In a 1989 national opinion poll commissioned by Parents magazine, 58% of respondents said they felt it was acceptable to use animals for medical research (Groller, 1990). This figure was dramatically altered, though, when the research in question was perceived to have very high or very low value. For example, when respondents were asked whether they would support animal research if it were "the only way we could find a cure for AIDS," the percentage of supporters climbed to 78%. Conversely, 58% of the same respondents said that using animals for cosmetics research was wrong and should be prohibited by law. As these results show, public support for animal research is contingent on the perceived necessity and significance of the research in question.

Likewise, support for animal experimentation depends greatly on the animal involved. In general, support is highest when the animal is a rodent or is seen as fundamentally dissimilar to humans, and support is lowest when the animal is a dog, cat, or great ape (Driscoll, 1992; Pifer, Shimizu, & Pifer, 1994; Plous, 1996a, 1996b). This pattern is well illustrated by a national survey commissioned by the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR; 1985). In this study 77% of respondents approved of biomedical research on animals, yet only 45% approved of using monkeys, and only 27% approved of using purpose-bred dogs or cats. As these findings make clear, majority support for animal research can readily evaporate if the research involves a favored animal.

One last factor that affects public support is the level of "invasiveness" entailed in the experimental procedure (e.g., whether the procedure is expected to cause animals to suffer). The importance of this factor was evident in a statewide poll of Virginians conducted in 1988 (Virginia Commonwealth University, 1988). In this poll, 61% of respondents initially expressed support for medical research using animals. When the remaining respondents were then asked whether they would support animal research if they knew it would not cause pain to the animals, 38% replied affirmatively, thereby raising the total percentage of supporters to more than 75% of those surveyed. An equally interesting question -- one that was not addressed in the Virginia poll -- is whether any of the 61% of respondents who originally supported animal research would have withdrawn their support if the research was described as causing pain to animals. Evidence from other polls suggests that the answer is yes (Pifer, Shimizu, & Pifer, 1994).

These poll results underscore the difficulty of interpreting survey findings such as "X% of Americans support animal research," because in most cases public opinion polls have lumped together all forms of animal research into a single question. Indeed, under these circumstances it is hard to know what "support for animal research" means to a respondent. Support for all animal research? Support for some studies but not others? Support for using certain animals but not others? Without addressing these underlying issues, a single measure of "support for animal research" is akin to a measure of "support for drugs" that leaves open the type of drug and intended purpose (e.g., recreational drugs versus life-saving drugs).

In part to address this methodological limitation, I recently conducted two national studies on attitudes toward animal research in psychology: a detailed survey of 5,000 randomly chosen members of the American Psychological Association (APA), and a parallel survey of 2,022 psychology students randomly sampled from 50 colleges and universities in the United States (Plous, 1996a, 1996b). In both studies, respondents were presented with twelve different types of psychological research and asked to indicate which types are justified and which are unjustified, assuming "all research has been institutionally approved and deemed of scientific merit." As seen in Figures 1 and 2, support for animal research depended critically on whether pain and death were involved in the experiment. When pain and death were not involved, a solid majority of psychologists and students supported animal research, but when the research involved pain or death to the animal, respondents tended more often than not to view the research as unjustified (regardless of the type of animal in question).

Figure 1. The margin of support psychologists expressed for various types of research. Respondents were given an empty table with four columns labeled Primates, Dogs, Rats, and Pigeons, and three rows labeled Observational studies in naturalistic settings, Research involving caging or confinement, but no physical pain or death, and Research involving physical pain or death. They were told to assume that the research was "institutionally approved and deemed of scientific merit," and they were asked to indicate whether each type of research was usually justified or unjustified. Margin of support equals the percentage of respondents saying justified minus the percentage of respondents saying unjustified. [Reprinted from Plous, 1996a]

Figure 2. The margin of support psychology students expressed for various types of research (using the same item presented in Figure 1). [Reprinted from Plous, 1996b]

Given this relatively high level of concern about animal pain and suffering, the question naturally arises as to whether members of the public see animal research as inflicting excessive harm to animals. Once again, the results of the 1985 FBR survey are informative. When respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement "Most animals used in research suffer more pain and distress than they should," only 16% of the public and 15% of students disagreed. Instead, nearly two-fifths of the public and half of the students endorsed the view that animal research involves excessive animal suffering (the balance of respondents did not express a position one way or the other). By a five-to-one margin, then, respondents expressed doubt and/or uncertainty when it came to the infliction of excessive animal pain and distress.

Relative to 50 years ago, the public today is also less confident that laboratory animals are treated humanely. In 1948, three fourths of the public believed that medical schools treated laboratory animals as well as individual owners would, and nearly half felt that research rules and regulations were unnecessary (Roper Center, 1998b, 1998c). By 1989, however, only 33% of the public thought that animals used in medical and pharmaceutical research were treated humanely, compared with 49% who thought veal calves were treated humanely (Animal Industry Foundation, 1989). Similar findings have also been reported in other national studies (FBR, 1985; Plous, 1996a, 1996b).

Perhaps partly as a consequence of this skepticism concerning the humane treatment of laboratory animals, public support for research regulations tends to be high, especially when animal pain and suffering are involved. For example, when the 1985 FBR survey asked respondents whether the government should regulate "the use of anesthetics and other things to reduce or eliminate pain and suffering," 74% of the public and 81% of students said yes, compared with only 5% of the public and 7% of students who said no (the remaining respondents were not sure or gave a different answer). This high level of support implies that animal research supporters and opponents both agree that pain in laboratory animals should be regulated by the government.

Additional evidence suggests that self-identified supporters and opponents of animal research share several other areas of agreement, and that there may be more room for compromise than typically assumed. As shown in Figure 3, for example, supporters and opponents both favor the inclusion of rats, mice, and pigeons, and reptiles under the Animal Welfare Act (currently, these animals are excluded from coverage under the Act). Likewise, supporters and opponents both favor mandatory pain assessments before investigators are given approval to conduct a study (see Figure 4). Thus, when it comes to pain in laboratory animals, supporters and opponents of animal research both agree on the value of governmental regulations, and both groups feel that federal regulations should cover a wide variety of laboratory animals.

Figure 3. The percentage of self-identified animal research supporters and opponents who felt that various animals should be covered under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) [Based on a national survey of psychologists, and adapted from Plous, 1996a]

Figure 4. The percentage of psychologists who expressed support for mandatory pain assessments. Respondents were presented with the following item: "Before being granted approval to run an experiment, investigators in Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands are required to assess the degree of pain animals may experience. Would you support or oppose a similar requirement in the United States?" [Based on Plous, 1996a]

There is also evidence that compromise on a variety of issues may be possible between animal researchers and animal rights activists (Plous, 1998). In 1996, I surveyed 372 activists at a national animal rights rally, and just over half the respondents said they would favor the 10-point compromise contained in Table 1 (33% of activists were opposed to the plan, and 17% were unsure). In this plan, activists would agree to condemn violent forms of activism, pledge to express their criticisms respectfully, bring suspected animal abuses to the attention of the institution before going to the media, and make several other concessions. One noteworthy aspect of these findings is that the plan was supported by 42% of activists who favored laboratory break-ins and 46% of activists who wanted to see all animal research eliminated, despite the fact that the plan would require these individuals to condemn laboratory break-ins. In other words, the plan was supported even by activists who held the most negative views toward animal research.

Table 1. A condensed summary of Clifton's (1996) 10-point proposal for reducing conflict between animal rights activists and animal researchers. Adapted with permission of the author.

If Animal Researchers Will...Then Animal Rights Activists Will...
(1) S"top" trying to portray animal rights activists as terroristsCondemn all violent forms of activism, including arson, break-ins, vandalism, and bomb threats
(2) Open all animal care and research committee meetings to the publicAgree not to disrupt animal care and research meetings or harass any of the participants
(3) Hold regular open houses at laboratories and address any problems that the public detectsS"top" using exaggerated or outdated photographs from animal research that is no longer conducted
(4) Show a willingness to police themselves and discipline researchers who are abusive to animalsDiscuss suspected animal abuses with the institution in question, before going to the media
(5) Report the number of rats, mice, and birds used in research, even if tallies are not required by lawS"top" using old or inflated estimates of how many animals are used in research
(6) Refrain from forming political alliances with groups that favor animal use (e.g., hunters)Refrain from forming political alliances with groups that are anti-science
(7) Recognize the value of animal protection groups that are willing to work cooperativelyRecognize the value of animal research groups that are willing to work cooperatively
(8) End animal dissection in classes below the upper division university levelS"top" using the dissection issue to generate opposition to animal research
(9) Quit buying animals from random source dealers (i.e., animals not bred for research)Quit claiming that biomedical researchers are responsible for families losing their pets
(10) Acknowledge criticism respectfully, recognizing that activists and researchers share common groundExpress criticism respectfully, recognizing that activists and researchers share common ground

In summary, most members of the public and most students express general support for animal research, but this support depends on a number of factors, and it declines considerably when the research involves the infliction of pain. Supporters and opponents of animal research are both concerned about pain, and both groups support mandatory pain assessments and expanded species coverage under the Animal Welfare Act. Indeed, opinion surveys suggest that the importance of reducing animal pain is an area of potential agreement between supporters and opponents of animal research, and that it may be possible for animal researchers and animal rights activists to reach a compromise on this issue and other issues of concern.


  • American Medical Association. (1989, April). AMA surveys of physician and public opinion on health care issues: 1989. Chicago, IL: Author.
  • Animal Industry Foundation. (1989, April). Survey results on how Americans view modern livestock farming (Report No. CR 2765). Arlington, VA: Author.
  • Clifton, M. (1996, May). Peace talk. Animal People, p. 2. Driscoll, J. W. (1992). Attitudes toward animal use. Anthrozo√∂s 5: 32-39.
  • Foundation for Biomedical Research (1985). Members of the American public comment on the use of animals in medical research and testing. (Available from the Foundation for Biomedical Research, 818 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 303, Washington, DC 20006)
  • Groller, I. (1990, May). Do animals have rights? Parents, p. 33.
  • Pifer, L., Shimizu, K., and R. Pifer (1994). Public attitudes toward animal research: Some international comparisons. Society and Animals 2: 95-113.
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  • Plous, S. (1998). Signs of change within the animal rights movement: Results from a follow-up survey of activists. Journal of Comparative Psychology 112: 48-54.
  • Roper Center for Public Opinion-POLL Database (Question ID: USNORC.480246.R08). [Electronic database]. (1998a). Storrs, CT: Roper Center for Public Opinion [Producer and Distributor].
  • Roper Center for Public Opinion-POLL Database (Question ID: USNORC.480246.R10). [Electronic database]. (1998b). Storrs, CT: Roper Center for Public Opinion [Producer and Distributor].
  • Roper Center for Public Opinion-POLL Database (Question ID: USNORC.480246.R22). [Electronic database]. (1998c). Storrs, CT: Roper Center for Public Opinion [Producer and Distributor].
  • Virginia Commonwealth University. (1988). The Commonwealth Poll. (Available from the Survey Research Laboratory, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, 23284).

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