As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
Ever wondered why you don’t like eating dog, but don’t mind eating hot dogs? Or why you feel a sense of outrage over whaling, but have few qualms over consuming fish and chips? Why do we eat bacon and pork but not pig, and beef or lamb instead of cows or sheep? What’s really wrong with a bit of horse meat in your casserole anyway?
As a psychologist I find that people are mostly inconsistent in their attitudes and beliefs about animals, and especially those we eat. This is because, for most, eating meat represents a moral conflict. Most meat-eaters do not like to think about the harm that their culinary practices bring to animals, but they do like to eat meat.
The meat paradox and the ways that we seek to resolve it psychologically have a direct bearing on issues of mind and consciousness. It is only to the extent that we perceive animals as having minds, experiencing conscious states, and therefore as having the capacity for pain and suffering that we ever experience moral conflict around meat. Of course our perceptions of animal minds are notoriously flexible. For example, when people feel lonely they are more likely to attribute mental qualities (and especially socially relevant mental qualities) to their pets.
Some have argued that the West’s aversion to the idea of eating dogs is primarily driven by an increased reliance on dogs for social support. This occurs less in countries such as Taiwan where traditional family structures satiate social-connectedness needs. Of course this can go the other way, and when we eat animals it makes good psychological sense not to spend a lot of time also thinking about their minds.
My colleagues and I have now started to investigate the different ways that people overcome their discomfort around meat-eating. One very obvious strategy is to try and forget about the link between animals and meat. Of course this disconnect is not something that we have to try all that hard to achieve. Meat-processing plants are kept out of sight and meat products are nicely wrapped in white plastic packages, without the inconvenient reminders of “animalness” such as feet, heads or tails. The meat industry makes sure that consumers are rarely forced to deal with the reality of their meat consumption.
This kind of disconnect can also result from subtle psychological processes. In one study we asked people to think about a novel (non-existent) animal and to rate their moral concern for its welfare. We found that when the unfamiliar animal was categorised as being cooked and used as food, people attributed to it significantly less capacity to suffer. This occurred independently of whether people were responsible for its death (via hunting it) or not (collecting it after it died of natural causes).
This indicates that the simple act of categorising an animal as food shifts attention away from qualities such as mind and consciousness and reduces moral concern. This may be one reason why cows and sheep are viewed as mentally mundane compared to other animals that we don’t put on our plates. Just so, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that pigs possess relatively high levels of intelligence, but we are much more comfortable talking about intelligent dogs than intelligent pigs.
Of course consuming animals that are not considered food can create all kinds of squeamishness. Consider the recent horsemeat scandal. People created all kinds of reasons for their feeling of disgust at eating horsemeat, including health safety concerns, but of course horsemeat has been consumed safely for years.
I would argue that the issue was far more closely related to the fact that horses are seen as pets and not food. The idea of eating pets is indeed disgusting.
If people try to avoid the connection between meat and animals, what happens when they are forced to make this link? In other research we have shown that asking people to think about animals being killed for food leads them to attribute fewer mental qualities to that animal. Perhaps, however, this only happens for meat-eaters and not vegetarians, who on average attribute many more mental qualities to animals in the first place.
In one study directly investigating the effects of meat-eating behaviour we asked participants to write an essay about where meat comes from. We then told participants that they would be completing a different study on consumer preferences. Half of the participants were told that as part of this survey they would be asked to sample a green apple and rate their preference for it. The other half were told they would be sampling some delicatessen beef products.
The experimenter placed both the beef and the green apples on the table in full view of participants. They then announced that they would go and retrieve the cutlery and plates for participants to sample the food with, and asked participants to help out by completing an unrelated quick rating task while they were gone.
All participants were then provided with a sheet of paper with a picture of a cow and a list of mental attributes. They also rated their current mood. We found that participants who thought they were about to eat meat attributed fewer mental qualities to the cow than those who thought they were about to eat apples (all participants were meat-eaters).
We also found that the extent to which participants denied mental qualities to the cow reduced any negative effect that they were experiencing prior to eating the meat products on the table. It would seem that denying mental attributes to the cow reduced participants’ moral concern, and in turn discomfort, about eating meat.
Our research demonstrates that people attribute mind and consciousness to, and shape their moral concern for, animals to suit their own meat-eating behaviour. What is perhaps most interesting is the flexible, dynamic, and motivated nature of the changes that we observe. People do appear to engage in a variety of mental backflips to avoid the discomfort that can easily become associated with eating meat.
What makes this a fascinating problem to research is the fact that conflict over meat-eating is on the rise. On the one hand, meat is heavily embedded in our culture, traditions and diets. Meat-eating has been around for millennia, has offered humans an important source of protein and has even been credited with providing an important boost for human cognitive and social advancement.
Killing animals and eating meat is a widespread behaviour that is deeply connected to our basic survival needs and current cultural practices. On the other hand, there is an increasing recognition of animal rights and, relatedly, animal minds. Distinct social movements have emerged over the last three decades in favour of protecting animals and people are becoming increasingly aware of the mental abilities of animals. Today, compared to days gone by, animals are more often included in our circle of moral concern, a fact that will not sit comfortably with our current meat-eating practices.