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Understanding Cognitive Dissonance in Meat Eating


Have you ever wondered how it is that people could claim to be against animal cruelty, and then eat meat? Well, you are not the only one that wonders about such things. Researchers and psychologists do, too! 

If you were to ask 10 random people if they are against animal cruelty, there is a good chance that every one of them will say that they are. Some may be quite passionate in their feelings about being against animal cruelty. Yet chances are, nearly all of those 10 people would also be meat eaters. Maybe out of that 10 you get lucky by getting a vegetarian or vegan. We've all seen similar issues online, especially on Facebook, where people will post a photo that says something like "This person is against animal cruelty." Once, I commented by saying "Me too! What's for dinner?" You can imagine how well things went after that!

A term to get familiar with, so that you have some sort of understanding about how it can be that people claim to be against animal cruelty, and then they nosh down on animals is "cognitive dissonance." This is the term for what is happening when someone against animal cruelty eats meat. Here's the dictionary definition of cognitive dissonance: 

"the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change."

Simply stated, cognitive dissonance is when our behavior doesn't match up with our beliefs.

Meat eating involves cognitive dissonance, because the majority of people are against animal cruelty.  Over the years, there has been ongoing research as to why this happens with meat eaters. There have been some scientific research studies published in peer-reviewed journals that have delved into this question as well. Here is a small sampling of some of t them:

  • October 2016 in the journal of Appetite, researchers reported that "Dissociating meat from its animal origins may be a powerful way to avoid cognitive dissonance resulting from this 'meat paradox'." In their study, they even found that people had less empathy if the meat was processed, as compared to non-processed meat. They also found that in roasting a pig, people had more empathy if the head was still attached, than if it had been beheaded. They also found that there are words that can be used to lessen the empathy one has toward the animals. They report that "describing industrial meat production as "harvesting" versus "killing" or "slaughtering" indirectly reduced empathy. Also, they found that "replacing "beef/pork" with "cow/pig" in a restaurant menu increased empathy and disgust, which both equally reduced willingness to eat meat and increased willingness to choose an alternative vegetarian dish." 
  • In another issue of the journal Appetite, researchers found that "there are a number of strategies that omnivores adopt to reduce this dissonance including avoidance, dissociation, perceived behavioral change, denial of animal pain, denial of animal mind, pro-meat justifications, reducing perceived choice, and actual behavioral change." They also found that even the mere presence of a vegetarian can cause meat eating to be a scrutinized behavior and remind meat eaters of their discomfort."
  • In the journal Personality & Social Psychology, researchers report that dissonance motivates people to deny minds to animals. They conducted three studies, which show that animals that people consume are ascribed to have diminished mental capacities, that "meat eaters are motivated to deny minds to food animals when they are reminded of the link between meat and animal suffering," and "expectations regarding the immediate consumption of meat increase mind denial." 
  • In another journal of Appetite, researchers looked at the fact that people love animals, but they also love eating animals. They found that animals that were labeled as "food" were given less moral consideration by people. They concluded that "People may be able to love animals and love meat because animals categorized as food are seen as insensitive to pain and unworthy of moral consideration."

So what does all of this mean for the vegetarian or vegan? Well, it means you some understanding as to why it is that people can claim to love animals and be against animal abuse, and yet go on to eat meat. If terms such as "pork" and "beef" are used, instead of pigs and cows, it helps people to reduce dissonance. The same goes for not seeing images of a cow on a menu (or outside the window) when they are about to order steak. When we call it "harvesting" the animal, rather than killing it, that also helps meat eaters to reduce dissonance, as well as when animals are categorized as being "food," so that they are then seen as being unworthy of moral consideration.

There's no doubt that the restaurant and meat industry uses this research information to its advantage, in order to get people to eat more meat. But it's also useful information for vegetarians and vegans, because they can use this to try to increase empathy and compassion for animals. How? Don't use the meat industry terms and tricks to get people to feel more comfortable about eating meat. Call it what it is (e.g., cows, pigs, chickens, killing, slaughtering, etc.), and show that those animals are more than just worthy of being labeled "food." Take your picture with a cow or pig, talk about their personality and their name, let people see that they have feelings.

I had this discussion with my husband this week and he mentioned that people still call chicken what it is and it doesn't slow them down from eating it. But I explained that if you simply add an "s" to the word, you will see what difference that one little letter makes. When you say you don't eat "chicken," people picture a piece of meat. But when you say you don't eat "chickens," they picture birds. That one changed the image in their head and made them think of the animal. Same goes for turkey versus turkey's. 

So the next time someone asks you if you eat a particular type of meat, respond by saying you don't eat "chickens," "turkeys," "pigs," or "cows." That will heighten their cognitive dissonance (maybe they will even reach for the vegetarian option). Cognitive dissonance is how people are able to "love animals" and be against animal cruelty, and yet eat them a couple of times per day, thus contributing to massive animal cruelty. The least we vegetarians and vegans can do is not use the industry terms and tools that have been promoted in an effort to help them eat more meat. 


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