My last post was about a very human tendency to discount troublesome knowledge, and so is this one, which I’d been intending to write for a while.
In The Vegan magazine (Summer 2010, p8-9) Carol Norton, alumna of the Social Psychology Unit at the London School of Economics, has written an account of her research into the contradiction between liking and eating animals. I reproduce it below without permission because I thought it deserved a wider readership.
The truth about meat-eaters
Carol Norton, PhD
My research suggests that meat-eaters are ‘in denial’ about the life and death behind meat: that is, they keep the meat they eat separate in their minds from the animals they love. Meat eaters may genuinely believe that they like eating meat more than they love animals, but analysis of their attitudes reveals that the opposite is true, and that psychological and cultural processes maintain their illusions of consistency.
Our culture promotes meat-eating through surreptitious farming methods, renaming animals into meat (e.g. pig/pork), different media portrayals between species, and children’s socialisation. But this veil of separation does not completely obscure the former life of film-engulfed flesh on supermarket shelves; it merely enables denial, a paradoxical state in which people simultaneously seem to know, and not know, the truth. Denial is always partial; people always register enough information to trigger their denial strategies.
These include avoiding or rejecting the truth, attacking the source of information, blaming others, seeking alternative information, or forgetting. When confronted with the truth, someone in denial may experience being reminded of something unpalatable that they ‘sort-of’ already know. Their denial strategies then rush to restore the illusion. As an example, like many vegetarians, I have been asked why I don’t eat meat, only to be interrupted with: “Oh no, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know!”
In focus groups, meat-eaters agreed that they did not ordinarily connect animals to meat:
“I reckon 90% of people that go into the butcher’s shop … and order a piece of lamb don’t think of that as a sheep”
“… You don’t … it’s ‘meat’; you don’t see it as a sheep; you don’t see it as a cow”
“If they actually knew how they were killed … there’d be a lot more vegetarians”
“It’d put you off for life”
“Oh yeah true”
owever, most meat-eaters argued that they liked eatiing meat more than they loved animals: hence their views were consistent with eating meat overall. A minority argued that farmed animals are bred to be eaten and therefore eating meat is good for animals. This presupposes that farmed animals lead happy lives and that they would otherwise die out (ignoring the precedent protection of some species)”. The remaining meat-eaters were torn: feeling very uncomfortable with no sufficiently valid reason to eat meat:
“I see no justification whatsoever … I only eat meat because I don’t think about it. If I thought about it, I couldn’t possibly”
Reasons about eating meat and loving animals
To test these arguments, I experimentally measured meat-eaters’ automatic responses to images of animals, animals being slaughtered, and cooked meat. Unlike the focus group discussions, participants could not consciously control these measurements taken by computer. The results were astonishing: contrary to popular belief, meat eaters did not like animals any less than vegetarians. The difference was that, whereas for vegetarians meat was synonymous with animals’ slaughter, meat-eaters did not connect meat with the slaughter of animals. This fog of denial allowed them to eat meat guilt-free.
I also tested people’s satisfaction with their own attitudes and whether or not their attitudes changed. Meat-eaters became increasingly uncomfortable as they considered their attitudes. In the end, meat-eaters’ attitudes to animals reamined highly positive, but their attitudes towards eating meat and animals’ slaughter fell significantly.
Changes in attitudes
Yet these results contradicted the focus groups, where most meat-eaters argued that they liked eating meat more than they loved animals. The conclusion is that many meat-eaters are ‘in denial’ about their own attitudes towards meat, animals and their slaughter.
Further, although meat-eaters claimed that they enjoyed the taste of meat, statistical analysis revealed that underlying their reasons for eating meat was ‘habit’, not ‘taste’. The psychological explanation is that most of our moral arguments merely justify automatic judgements, made without conscious awareness. Such shortcuts ease our mental workload, but they mean that decisions are often less well-considered than we imagine. For most meat-eaters, ‘taste’ seems a better reason to eat meat than ‘habit’. In the same way, many focus group members justified eating meat backwards from their behaviour; reasoning which the experiments discounted. Backward justification works like this: “I eat meat; therefore I must like meat more than animals”. In fact, most meat-eaters eat meat out of habit and like farmed animals more than meat. Further, when meat-eaters honestly consider their own attitudes, they become uncomfortable and reduce their liking for meat.
Facilitating attitude change
One of the best ways to change someone’s behaviour is to draw their attention to inconsistencies between their behaviour and attitudes. In this case, the attitude change was contrary to the behaviour of eating meat. This is because meat-eaters’ attitudes towards animals were remarkably stable and because meat-eaters were in denial about animals’ slaughter. When meat-eaters were forced to reconnect meat to animals’ slaughter in their minds they became uncomfortable and, without their usual denial strategies, they changed their attitudes towards animals’ slaughter and eating meat.
In theory, then, many meat-eaters would become vegetarian if they honestly considered their own attitudes and the reality of animals’ slaughter. To encourage this, we need to grab meat-eaters’ attention without them feeling too personally judged or threatened. In many ways, denial strategies have the psychological upper hand as they maintain a safe status quo. Yet my research shows that, if used carefully, the simple truth may lead people to change their own minds.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
Looking for responses, I found this from Maneka Gandhi, who also refers to the work of Clive Hamilton, the subject of my previous post.