Is eating meat an emotional problem? Does it cause cognitive dissonance, that is, does it collide with our care for animals in a way that makes us uncomfortable? A recent three part study by psychologists Brock Bastian and colleagues, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38/2 (2012), offers some interesting insights.
In the first study participants where simply asked to rate different animals in regard to their minds and their edibility. The mind measure was a composite using likert scales for things like fear, pain, memory, emotion etc. The edibility was measured the same way but with two questions, “Would you choose to eat this animal?” and “Would you eat this animal if asked to?”
As you might have guessed, there was a negative correlation between mind attribution and edibility. This could be construed as a wish to eat only mindless animals like fish or shrimps and not those more evolved like monkey, dog, dolphin, elephant found in the cluster of animals deemed least edible. However, in this cluster we also find the horse, a fairly stupid animal, but one that people often interact with and have feelings for.Cows have minds about as evolved as horses but not in the eye of the participants who rated cow low in mind – and high in edibility. This suggests that there is a tendency to attribute mind to animals that are loved, and deny mind to those we choose to eat. One explanation for this could be that participants (and people in general) experience cognitive dissonance when eating animals due to both wanting to eat them and also feeling bad for them.
To explore this possibility further, the researchers conducted a second study in which participants were given to pictures of a cow and a sheep. The first picture to be shown came with the neutral text,
“This lamb/cow will be moved to other paddocks, and will spend most of its time eating grass with other lambs/cows.”
The second picture had a potentially more disturbing description,
“This lamb/cow will be taken to an abattoir, killed, butchered, and sent to supermarkets as meat products for humans.”
Both these animals were attributed roughly the same mind in the first study but in this study a new difference emerged. The animal presented as being slaughtered and used for food was attributed less mind, regardless of whether it was a cow or a sheep. This clearly indicates that mind attribution is dependent on whether we think about the animal as food or not.
But is this due to cognitive dissonance? After all, it could be that the design of the experiment influenced participants to think in categories and that the food text makes us think of food rather than animals. To answer this question, the researchers made a third, more elaborate, study.
This time they told participants that they were making a study on consumer behavior. First they were shown the cow/sheep picture in the previous study with the neutral test and as previously asked to rate how evolved mind the animal has. Then participants were shown a list of different foods that they would require eating if they took part in the study. This was to ensure that no one was squeamish about eating meat. Next, they all wrote a little essay on how a cow or a sheep is processed into food. They were informed that they would not be sampling the type of meat they were writing about. Some participants would not be eating meat at all, but apple instead.
As they wrote their essays the researchers carried in the beef, lamb and apples. When the essays where done they informed the participants that they were just going to get some cutlery and asked the participants if they would be willing to help out with another study that involved rating the animal they were about to eat along with a measure called Daily Mood Scale, measuring positive and negative affect. And they walked right into the trap the researchers had so cleverly designed for them. That is, those who were sampling meat. Some were sampling fruit.) So what happened?
Apple eaters, exposed to no potential cognitive dissonance, gave the same mind attribution on both rating occasions. Meat eaters, however, reduced the mind attribution distinctly on the second occasion when they were about to eat the animal they rated. And in this study they were only given the essay to write about meat production so there was no neutral option, no one was prompted to think into different categories of animals versus food.
But the most interesting of all the results in the third study was the one on the Daily Mood Scale. It showed that those who reduced mind attribution when expecting to eat the animal being rated did not report any negative affect, while those who maintained a consistent mind attribution did so at the cost of reporting more negative affect. This is a very clear indication that imagining the animals we are about to eat as less evolved serves the purpose of reducing cognitive dissonance. It’s also a bit scary how flexible people are in this respect. Humans are rarely truth-over-harmony. If there is a conflict between reality (in this case the mind of an animal) and our emotions, then most people seem ok with adjusting their view of reality to spare their feelings.
So, where am I going with all this? Well, as a vegetarian I feel strongly for the animals, and I’d like for more people to stop eating meat. But the study is in no way showing that vegetarianism is the morally superior choice. We all have our own morals and to my knowledge there isn’t any way to prove that one is objectively better than the other. But what the study does suggest is that if you find meat production to be an unpleasant topic of conversation during dinner, then you’re suppressing your empathy in order to feel good about eating animals. This means you have a moral code, you’re not ok with eating animals, but for some reason you don’t live by your code. This may be due to conformism, lack of self-respect, lack of reflection etc. But is there any good reason to not live by your code? I can’t think of one.
So if you care for animals and feel bad about eating them, but try to tell yourself it’s no big deal, you’re not just letting the animals down, you’re letting yourself down too.