Psychology of eating meat
The psychology of eating meat is a complex area of study illustrating the confluence of morality, emotions, cognition, and personality characteristics. Research into the psychological and cultural factors of meat eating suggests correlations with masculinity; support for hierarchical values; and reduced openness to experience. Because meat eating is widely practiced but sometimes considered morally ambivalent, it has been used as a case study in moral psychology to illustrate theories of cognitive dissonance and moral disengagement.[n 1] Research into the consumer psychology of meat is relevant both to meat industry marketing and to advocates of reduced meat consumption.
Meat is an important and highly preferred human food. Individuals' attitudes towards meat are of interest to consumer psychologists, to the meat industry, and to advocates of reduced meat consumption. These attitudes can be affected by issues of price, health, taste, and ethics. The perception of meat in relation to these issues affects meat consumption.
Meat is traditionally a high-status food. It may be associated with cultural traditions and has strong positive associations in most of the world. However, it sometimes has a negative image among consumers, partly due to its associations with slaughter, death, and blood. Holding these associations more strongly may decrease feelings of pleasure from eating meat and increase disgust, leading to lowered meat consumption. In the West, these effects have been found to be particularly true among young women. Negative associations may only cause consumers to make meat less noticeable in their diets rather than reducing or eliminating it, for example making meat an ingredient in a more-processed dish. It has been suggested that this is the result of a disconnect between individuals' roles as consumers and as citizens.[n 2]
Implicit attitudes towards meat have been reported to vary significantly between omnivores and vegetarians, with omnivores holding much more positive views. Vegetarians may express either revulsion or nostalgia at the thought of eating meat.[n 3]
Consumer behavior towards meat may be modeled by distinguishing the effects of intrinsic factors (properties of the physical product itself, such as color) and extrinsic factors (everything else, including price and brand).
Taste and texture are self-reported to be important factors in food choice, although this may not accurately reflect consumer behavior. Consumers describe meat as "chewy", "tender", and "rich". In the United Kingdom, meat is traditionally considered to taste good. People experience the taste and texture of meat in significantly different ways, with variations across ages, genders, and cultures. Tenderness is perhaps the most important of all factors impacting meat eating quality, with others being flavor, juiciness, and succulence.
Visual appearance is one of the primary cues consumers use to assess meat quality at the point of sale, and to select meats. Color is one of the most important characteristics in this context. Different cultural traditions lead consumers to prefer different colors: some countries prefer relatively dark pork overall, some light, and some have no clear preference.
Visible fat content and marbling are also important intrinsic quality cues. Consumers as a whole tend to prefer leaner beef and pork, although significant variations exist across geographical regions. Marbling is important to some consumers but not others, and, as for fat content more generally, preference for marbling varies by region.
Health concerns are also relevant to consumer choices about meat. The perceived risk of food contamination can affect consumer attitudes towards meat, as after meat-related scares such as those associated with mad cow disease or bird flu. Safety-related product recalls can impact demand for meat. People may reduce or eliminate meat from their diets for perceived health benefits. Because lean meat is an excellent source of healthy protein, but plant foods have other nutritional benefits, health considerations may motivate both meat-eaters and vegetarians. Meatless diets in adolescents can be a way to conceal eating disorders, although vegetarianism does not necessarily increase the risk of disordered eating.
Research suggests consumers tend to prefer meats whose origin lies in their own country over imported products, partly due to the fact that domestic meats are perceived to be of higher quality. This effect may also reflect consumers' ethnocentrism or patriotism. The importance of meat's country of origin varies from country to country.
Beliefs and attitudes about environmental and animal welfare concerns can affect meat consumption. Consumers in the developed world may be willing to pay slightly more for meat produced according to higher animal welfare standards, although welfare and environmental concerns are usually considered less important than attributes more directly related to meat quality, such as appearance. A 2001 study in Scotland found that, although participants cared about animal welfare in general, they considered price and appearance more important than welfare when buying meat. A study of Dutch consumers found that both rational and emotional responses to environmental and other concerns affected purchasing of organic meat.
Meat consumption patterns can also be influenced by individuals' family, friends, and traditions. A study of British eating patterns found that meat was associated with positive food traditions, such as the Sunday roast. Some consumers only purchase meat conforming with religious prescriptions, such as halal meat. These consumers' trust in quality assurance organizations, and individual relationships with meat providers, have been reported to significantly affect their purchasing behavior.
Recent trends in animal husbandry, such as biotechnology, factory farming, and breeding animals for faster growth, are expected to have a continuing effect on the evolution of consumer attitudes towards meat.
One question examined in the psychology of eating meat has been termed the meat paradox: how can individuals care about animals, but also eat them?[n 4] This conflict can produce cognitive dissonance in meat-eaters, who may mitigate it in several ways.
Studies have found that people who experience dissonance about eating meat facilitate this practice by emphasizing positive aspects of meat; by avoiding consideration of the provenance of animal products; and by minimizing the perceived existence of minds, emotional lives and moral standing among the animals they eat.
Ascription of limited mental capacity
Some social psychologists argue that meat eaters reduce cognitive dissonance by minimizing their perception of animals as conscious and able to experience pain and suffering, particularly animals they regard as food. This is said to be a psychologically effective strategy, because organisms perceived as less able to suffer are considered to be of less moral concern, and therefore more acceptable as food.
A 2010 study randomly assigned college students to eat beef jerky or cashews, then judge the moral relevance and cognitive abilities of a variety of animals. Compared with students who were given cashews, those who ate beef jerky expressed less moral concern for animals, and assigned cows a diminished ability to have mental states that entail the capacity to experience suffering.
Studies in 2011 similarly found that people were more inclined to feel it was appropriate to kill animals for food when they perceived the animals as having diminished mental capacities; that, conversely, they perceived animals as having diminished mental capacities when told they were used as food; and, again, that eating meat caused participants to ascribe fewer mental abilities to animals. A separate study found that subjects who read a description of an exotic animal rated it as less sympathetic and less able to experience suffering if they were told that native people ate the animal.
Other studies replicated the finding that meat-eaters ascribed fewer human-like qualities to animals than did vegetarians. Researchers have found that meat-eaters specifically consider traditionally edible animals less capable of experiencing refined emotions, even though meat-eaters and vegetarians did not differ in their evaluations of non-food animals. Another study determined that perception of animals' intelligence is highly correlated with disgust at the thought of eating them, and that such perception is culturally influenced.
Dissociation and avoidance
Several proposed strategies for resolving the meat paradox dissociate meat as a food product from the animals which produce it. A 2007 study found that consumers in three European countries did not usually think about animal suffering when buying meat, and did not like to think about the connection between meat and live animals. Although concern for animal welfare has recently increased in some countries, a trend towards dissociating meat from its animal origins has tended to prevent such concerns from influencing consumer behavior.
Some authors have written that the use of non-animal words such as "sirloin" and "hamburger" for meat can reduce the salience of meat's origins in animals, and in turn reduce perceived consumption of animals. Similarly, farmers and hunters use terms such as "processing" and "managing" rather than "killing".[n 5] Meat may be packaged and served so as to minimize its resemblance to live animals.
In addition to psychological dissociation strategies, people who experience discomfort relating to the meat paradox may avoid confrontation of the issue in other ways. Cultural socialization mechanisms may discourage people from thinking of their food choices as harmful; for example, children's books and meat advertisements usually portray farm animals as leading happy lives, or even desiring to be eaten. Omnivores may reduce tension associated with the meat paradox by reducing the amount of meat they perceive themselves to eat. Individuals may call themselves "vegetarians" despite regularly eating meat.
Ethical conflicts between enjoying meat and caring for animals may be made less problematic by holding positive attitudes towards meat. People who think of meat as safe, nutritious, and sustainable tend to experience less ambivalence about eating it. Religious belief in God-given dominion over animals can also justify eating meat.
A series of studies published in 2015 asked meat-eating American and Australian undergraduates to "list three reasons why you think it is OK to eat meat." Over 90% of participants offered reasons which the researchers classified among the "four N's":
- Appeals to human evolution or to carnivory in nature ("natural")
- Appeals to societal or historical norms ("normal")
- Appeals to nutritive or environmental necessity ("necessary")
- Appeals to the tastiness of meat ("nice")
The researchers found that these justifications were effective in reducing moral tension associated with the meat paradox.
Those who value power more highly have been found in several studies to eat more meat, while those who prefer self-transcendence values tend to eat less. In particular, studies have found that the personality trait of openness to experience is negatively correlated with meat consumption, and that vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians have more open personalities.
Other research has indicated that meat consumption is correlated with support for hierarchy and inequality values. Those with a social dominance orientation, who more strongly support inequality and hierarchical structures, have been found in some studies to eat more meat; it has been suggested that this is consistent with their preference for having certain groups dominate others (in this case, having humans dominate animals). In addition, research suggests people self-identifying as greater meat eaters have greater right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Dhont & Hodson (2014) suggested that this subconsciously indicates their acceptance of cultural tradition, and their rejection of nonconformist animal rights movements.
A detailed study of personality characteristics and diet in Americans characterized the self-descriptions of increased meat consumers as "pragmatic" and "business- and action-oriented", after correcting for gender differences.
The idea that "you are what you eat", related to superstitions about sympathetic magic and common in many cultures, may create the perception that eating meat confers animal-like personality attributes.
Across human cultures, meat may be connected with perceptions of masculinity in many ways. Men are less likely to be vegetarian than women; hunting for meat is a traditionally male activity in most societies; meat consumption is widely perceived to correlate with masculine muscle development; men in countries around the world are more likely to believe that "real" meals must be based around a meat dish; and, as a high-status food, meat in many cultures has historically been reserved primarily or exclusively for males.
Traditional Western constructions of masculinity may call for meat consumption. Vegetarian and vegan men are sometimes perceived as less masculine. Men may eat meat to reinforce their gender identity. Psychological narratives relating meat and masculinity are sometimes invoked in fast food advertisements. Men's Health magazine, with an international circulation of almost two million, promotes meat as essential to a manly, muscle-building diet.
A 2012 American study found that, when confronted with the "meat paradox" of simultaneously caring about animals and eating animals, men were more likely than women to present direct defenses of meat, such as denial of animal pain or religious justifications, rather than mentally dissociating meat from its animal origins or avoiding the issue.
Feminist and vegetarian author Carol J. Adams, in her 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat, set forth a theory linking patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity to the practices of meat-eating. She argued that there is a parallel between sexism and speciesism, and asserted that "the killing of animals is a feminist issue which feminists have failed to claim." Although her arguments were primarily based on sociological theory, some of her hypotheses have been supported by evidence from experimental psychology.
Michael Carolan and others have cautioned against "universalizing" the correlation between meat and masculinity, noting that wide variations exist among gender identities and their expressions.
In the course of human evolution, the pressures associated with obtaining meat required early hominids to cooperate in hunting, and in distributing the spoils afterwards. In a 2003 paper, psychologist Matteo Marneli proposed that these pressures created the basic principles of human moral judgements: put simply, he argued, "meat made us moral."
Despite this hypothesis, several studies have found that both omnivores and vegetarians tend to consider vegetarians slightly more moral and virtuous than omnivores. Ethical principles are often cited among reasons to stop eating meat. Some evidence suggests meat-eaters may consider vegetarianism an implicit moral reproach, and respond defensively to vegetarian ideas.
A 2015 study found that Belgian omnivores, semi-vegetarians (flexitarians), and vegetarians have fundamentally different moral outlooks on animal welfare concerns. However, the three groups were found to donate equally to human-focused charities.
Moral perspectives can have a strong influence on meat consumption, but are not uniform across cultures. In the West, choices about meat eating are known to be associated with moral concerns about animal welfare. In contrast, the psychology of diet in non-Western cultures has been poorly studied, even though important variations exist from region to region; for example, approximately one third of Indians are vegetarian. Research has indicated that, relative to Western vegetarians, Indian vegetarians are more likely to endorse the moral values of purity, legitimate authority, and respect for ingroup and tradition.
- Rozin (2004): "Meat should be a subject of special interest to psychologists, because it is a quintessential example of the interesting and important state of ambivalence." Loughnan et al. (2010): "Amongst omnivores, evaluations of meat are ambivalent, with negative attitudes partially the result of moral concerns regarding the treatment of animals." Graça et al. (2014): "Results indicate that although participants affirmed personal duties towards preserving the environment, promoting public health, and safeguarding animals from harm, they showed patterns that resemble moral disengagement strategies when discussing impacts associated with current meat production and consumption patterns, and the possibility of change— reconstrual of the harmful conduct; obscuring personal responsibility; disregard for the negative consequences; and active avoidance and dissociation." Loughnan et al. (2014): "The tension omnivores experience when reminded that their behavior may not match their beliefs and values, and the resolution of this tension by changing those beliefs, fits with the theory of cognitive dissonance."
- Font-i-Furnols (2014): "Meat and meat products have an important role in many Western and non-Western countries from a social and cultural perspective, and they are a central constituent of our meals and diet despite the overall negative beliefs and attitudes toward them. According to Grunert (2006), this apparent contradiction may partially be explained by the distinction between the roles of individuals as consumers and citizens: we may hold a negative attitude toward meat production and consumption as citizens, but it may be weakly displayed in our behavior as consumers."
- A British study found that vegetarians expressed nostalgia specifically for the taste and smell of bacon with “curious regularity”.
- Loughnan et al. (2011): "Meat eating is morally problematic because it contrasts our desire to avoid hurting animals with our appetite for their flesh. This tension – to love animals and to love meat – is the essence of the meat paradox."
Bastian et al. (2011): "Meat is central to most people's diets and a focus of culinary enjoyment (Fiddes, 1991). Yet most people also like animals and are disturbed by harm done to them. This inconsistency between a love for animals and enjoyment of meat creates a 'meat paradox' (Loughnan, Haslam, & Bastian, 2010); people's concern for animal welfare conflicts with their culinary behavior."
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