The truth about meat-eaters

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 c.a.norton@alumni.lse.ac.uk 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.

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10 thoughts on “The truth about meat-eaters

  1. OK. An animal loving meat eater is me! You know that!

    I refer you to another local Green, Clive Durdle, who refers to a book….

    This book argues that the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values. Link

    I did the Cognitive stuff at OU, but I’ll leave you to respond first. And consider how the proposition relates to other matters on which we are both interested and participate?

    What is it that make me, a meat eater, acceptable company in the pub as opposed to a local member of JBIG?

    • I have been thinking about “those other matters”, Weggis.

      I observe in myself that the proposition relates in other ways too – how angry I am about meat-eating, and what resentments and bad, self-indulgent arguing that impotence brings out in me. I probably damage my own cause. That’s why I’ve decided (as above) to stop trying to write about this on my own behalf and instead try to amplify serious people who are actually trying to persuade and not accuse.

      To answer your question about comparative pub company, let’s say that the local member of JBIG is vegan. In that case I have to limit my judgement to the happy observation that this person doesn’t pose a threat to animals alongside the threat they pose to Jews. I can manage that as long as I hold to the belief that nobody is wholly good or wholly bad, and that you have to weigh up the balance, relate it to their circumstances, etc.

      But, as the person who chooses who they drink with, it’s also about me – I’m an extremist on the subject of animals, so I have to make excuses for people all the time about it, just to lead a normal life. I think in order to change things you have to make them strange. But that’s not to imply blaming people for living by norms. And perhaps it’s because I’m that way, struggling with – and generally getting the better of and channelling – powerful negative feelings day to day, that I find extremists like JBIG, the PSC, StWC, etc who don’t get the upper hand over theirs very threatening.

      Which brings me to militancy, where I will have to stop and think some more.

      Weggis though, do you think you could confront yourself with what happens to the animal on your plate, and still feel inclined to go ahead with that diet?

      Cheers for talking about it, anyway, Weggis.

  2. Playing devil’s advocate here – if it wasn’t for humans eating meat, would humans have still grown and advanced to be at the top of the food chain?

    If it wasn’t for meat eaters, all the vegans and vegetarians might have kept us down – and we would be the prey, not the predator. In some sense, we climbed the ladder to get to the top, only to shoot ourselves in the foot.

    I agree with ethical conduct, treatment and care of animals – which is a separate issue from being a carnivore (and we have the teeth for it). Some studies have suggested that even plants can feel pain and they may well have other senses that we are not totally aware of, so to reject eating meat on those grounds is a slippery slope.

    • Well, I’ve come across these theories but they don’t make the case for those of us who have access to plenty of other nutritious food continuing to eat meat now that we’re at the top of the food chain with our big brains or whatever. It regresses us because it’s violent. It’s inhuman. And when I dehumanise, it’s not like it would be if you dehumanise, because I don’t consider non-human animal life a commodity, vermin, or of no consequence. But to me, to be human is to be humane – to make ethical choices, and to be resourceful in this respect, and to be self-conscious, not just go along in the rut of a habit. All of the consistently humane people I know are vegan (though not all vegans are humane).

      And no, rejecting eating meat on grounds of suffering is *not* a slippery slope at all. You are entitled to nourishment. But unless you want to act like some kind of animal yourself, and a dangerous one, you are not entitled to kill and eat other animals. Yes, I am saying that going hungry dehumanises us because it obliges us to kill.

      Remember, animals are more like us than they are different. They feel physical pain and the mental anguish of fear, loneliness, separation, and the crushing boredom and loss of identity of a loveless captivity. We need to feed the world well on plants, which we can do very well, and leave the animals alone.

      • I agree with being humane as much as is reasonably possible, but at the same time there has to be a balance. I also feel that you have glossed over the aspect of ‘suffering’ or ‘feeling pain’ as a sufficient reason for reject the eating of meat. You say it is not a slippery slope, but if plants can feel pain, will you stop eating plants on those same grounds?

        How would you propose dealing with certain population outbreaks, there have been many instances in which creatures like rats have overrun whole towns and cities, and in some cases like the Black Plague, it wreaked disease, death and destruction on a significant number of the human population – would you agree with exterminating such animals for incidences like that?

    • Casy, I’m relieved to know you’re just playing devil’s advocate and don’t actually believe a word of what you’re saying.

      Aren’t mosquitoes at the top of the food chain? Aren’t humans somewhere below sharks and cougars?

      No, we don’t have carnivore teeth. Compare yours with a cat’s. Run your finger along your teeth: what do you think all those flat ones are for? And the jaw that can move side to side as well as up and down? (But of course you were only joking.) Nonetheless, perhaps hunting and eating meat (including human flesh), not to mention rape and other forms of aggression, did play a significant role in the evolution of humans and their cultures. And the moral implication of that is…?

      “Some studies have suggested that even plants can feel pain….” Good one! Some studies have suggested that a flying saucer landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Some studies have suggested that the moon landing was a hoax. Some people believe we’re living on the inside of a hollow sphere with the sun at its centre. I mean, these things are just barely possible, aren’t they? So let’s conduct our lives on the assumption they are true.

      We can eat meat or we (at least nearly everyone) can live well and flourish without eating meat. We have a choice. Perhaps there are some good justifications for eating meat; but most of the typical ones given are just plain silly.

      • Mijnheer, I do eat meat, but the purpose of my playing ‘devils advocate’ is to be slightly provocative and spark a discussion or debate, in a respectful spirit ofcourse.

        Being at the ‘top of the food chain’ is to some extent, subjective, but overall it is true. Humans are not below sharks – what you are pointing out is that humans swimming recreationally and unprepared in sharks territory are at a disadvantage and more likely to be hurt than a shark – but when it comes down to the fight, a prepared human army with its submarines, ships and artillery, will easily overpower any number of sharks – so we can dominate and demonstrate how we are at the top of the food chain, if necessary. Likewise, if a shark was somehow able to wind up on land, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge for land dwelling humans to destroy it, so we have to look at the bigger picture here.

        We do have carnivorous teeth, and just because they may not be as pointy or sharp as a cat’s, does not negate the fact that we have sharp incisors which are a feature of animals that eat meat – if you look at cows, they have all flat teeth, they don’t eat meat. We have some flat teeth and some pointy teeth, because we are omnivores by nature, we are designed in our genes to eat both vegetation and meat.

        Rape and aggression did not play a significant role in the evolution of humans in the way you described – what you really mean is that rape and aggression may have been widespread and regular in the history of mankind, but it wasn’t a defining evolutionary aspect, according to the science we know – to put it crudely, if we didn’t eat meat, we might still be 2ft tall tree dwelling apes that were hunted and not hunters. That wasn’t my own firm belief, but if you believe in evolution as it is currently taught, then meat eating allowed humans to become the supreme species on earth.

        As for your flying sauces and fake moon landings – those were not scientific studies, they are conspiracy theories. I am referring to actual experiments and studies, featured on respected news outlets like the BBC that indicate plants can feel pain, and more recently there was another revelation that plants even have a primitive function of memory too. To compare that with some fringe element of people who believe were living in a hollow sphere with a sun at its centre – these are not barely possible, that is junk and not based on evidence, but the plants feeling pain story has grounds in scientific reality. You can’t discount something like that by comparing it to outlandish conspiracy theories.

        I will ask you what I asked the blog owner, if it was confirmed in your mind that plants can feel pain, will you give up eating plants on those same grounds?

  3. Pingback: Vegetarismus oder Ignoranz « wwwahnsinn

  4. Casy, as I said, perhaps hunting and eating meat did play a significant role in human evolution. But have a look at this interesting piece:
    http://paleovegan.blogspot.com/2010/08/rip-eth.html

    Whatever the truth of the matter may be, few people today have to eat meat in order to live and flourish. If we want to reduce the amount of suffering and death we inflict on the rest of the animal world, we can.

    As for plants feeling pain:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_neurobiology
    http://www.dowebsites.net/linv/images/about_pdf/Trends%202007%20Alpi.pdf

    Those who claim that plants can feel pain are on very shaky ground. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that plants can indeed feel pain. The question then is, how much pain is there and what kind of plant “self” exists that experiences this pain? We would have to decide who suffers more: a cow or a cabbage. Even on the unlikely assumption that plants can feel pain, I’m pretty sure we would be inflicting less suffering, and less loss of valuable future experiences, on plants than on animals. But if more suffering and loss were caused by eating plants, then I might have to eat meat instead — however yucky that prospect would be.

    • Mijnheer, I understand your sentiment about not inflicting suffering on the animal world and in principle I agree with that – I believe we shouldn’t cause unnecessary hurt to others.

      However, it should be acknowledged that your ‘boundary’ between animal and plant life for what you consider acceptable for consumption is arbitrary and biased according to your human perception – you say a cow has more valuable experiences than a plant so that justifies eating greens but not beef, but ask the plant and I’m sure they would object to being killed too. An interesting example of this ‘likeness’ psychology is in the renaming antics of PETA, where they wanted to rename fish to ‘sea kittens’ because you’d never think of gutting your kitty but maybe you would feel indifferent towards eating a tuna sandwich.

      It comes down to perception and scale – if you go to the microscopic level, there are countless smaller life forms that are being destroyed all the time because of humans, why shouldn’t we protect them?

      My personal belief is according to my faith – God said ‘Do not take life, which God has made sacred, except for just cause … ‘. Therefore, I consider it permissible to destroy vermin for pest control (otherwise it can lead to disease in human populations), and to use the meat of selected animals for food – and to do so with gratitude and recognition and to not be wasteful, which is a bigger problem in our developed nations than the privilege of eating meat.

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