Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mind over meat: How we justify eating animals

Most people like animals and have no desire to hurt them. An estimated 63% of American households own at least one pet, and many love their pets like children, doing everything possible to ensure their health and well-being. At the same time, however, at least 80% of Americans eat animals as a regular part of their diet. In recent research, Brock Bastian and colleagues refer to this as the "meat paradox," and they propose that people attempt to reconcile this paradox (and reduce the cognitive dissonance associated with it) by reassuring themselves that the animals they consume (unlike their pets) do not really have minds - that is, they cannot think, feel, and understand their fates, and therefore they do not really suffer.

The researchers found that participants tended to see food animals (e.g., cows, sheep) as having lower mental capacities, such as the potential to feel fear, pleasure, or pain, compared to non-food animals (e.g., horses, cats), and therefore as less deserving of moral treatment. This denial of mind was more pronounced when participants were reminded of the suffering animals experience during meat production (vegetarians, not surprisingly, did not show this pattern), and when they expected to eat meat (vs. fruit) later in the study. In sum, participants appeared to be motivated to see food animals as mind-less when doing otherwise could threaten their own sense of morality. Not a flattering tendency, but an understandable one. As the authors note, meat not only tastes good, but it is also culturally and personally meaningful for many people, and some find it difficult to eat a balanced, nutritious diet without including some animal products.

In the essay An Animal's Place, Michael Pollan argues that although meat-eating is not necessary for survival, it is part of our "evolutionary heritage" and our identity as animals ourselves. According to Pollan, one way to reconcile the meat paradox without denying an animal's mental capacity is to eat meat more conscientiously, buying from smaller-scale farms that treat animals humanely, and in moderation, prioritizing minimally processed plant-based foods. Some argue, however, that this attitude is just another attempt at dissonance reduction. 

Other ways to reconcile the paradox? Try fake meat, like Tofurkey and meatless meatballs (if you do this long enough, you may forget what real meat tastes like and stop missing it, according to a vegan friend of mine).  Or hold out for petri dish meat, which is "a real animal flesh product, just one that has never been part of a complete, living animal." Why does that sound grosser than eating animal meat? Either way, this could be a useful innovation if they get it right -- no cruelty, better for the environment, and better for your health.

Further reading:

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Bastian B, Loughnan S, Haslam N, & Radke HR (2011). Don't Mind Meat? The Denial of Mind to Animals Used for Human Consumption. Personality & social psychology bulletin PMID: 21980158


  1. Bastian et al. articles on the meat paradox make fascinating reading, but unfortunately the stats supporting their case are sus, to say the least. The studies are based on small groups of largely female students, (60 to 120 people,1/2, 2/3 or 3/4 of them females), from the University of Queensland or Brock University. The authors explicitly push the audiences very hard in the direction they want to, and even though, a shift of only 5% in the mean was recorded (from 4.08+/- 0.86 to 4.3 +/-0.82 on a scale of 1 to 7). The manipulation was based on guilt, using phrases like “slaughtering” , “butchering” or “animal testing”.
    The authors go on making conclusions concerning the moral implications of the “meat paradox” which appear too far reaching considering that the samples were mostly girls from the educated middle class, and that the shift in the results was so small. I wonder what the results would have been should the audiences had been working class males.
    Back to the moral implications, since vegans don't suffer from the cognitive dissonance implied by the meat paradox, they are more aware of animal suffering, and hence they are more aware of the suffering of poor people in the 3rd world, and the like. In other words, vegans naturally display a moral superiority that meat eaters simply lack because of their obsession with meat.
    Thus, if it is true that eating meat makes people morally insensitive, what about women who have had abortions: are they a bad class of people on its own, as they necessarily would dampen all feelings re everyone else in order to keep on living after killing their unborn bubs? If this is what Bastian et al mean, I should say that I find it too pro-life for my taste.
    And how about atheistic people who are happy despite knowing that life is a meaningless affair in a planet lost in space, doomed from day one? Isn't that a terrible paradox too? Denying such a dark reality in order not to kill ourselves every morning surely makes us all, vegans included, insensitive to everything/everyone else, or does it?
    It looks to me that adding a moral overtone to the meat paradox simply tells a lot about the authors' own hidden attitudes and beliefs. If I had to rank the authors, I would slot them as either Freudians or Christians, and deeply idealistic in philosophical terms. Freudian/Christians because of the guilt thing, and idealistic since they seem to believe that personal attitudes can be changed through a simple psychological manipulation, and by doing that, somehow the world will become a better place in which we all become vegans and behave in a morally acceptable way, free from moral paradoxes.
    My impression is that we all have plenty of paradoxes in our daily life: I drive the car despite of the fact that I know it is bad for the environment; I eat chocolate despite being on a diet, I drink/smoke/gamble despite...etc. And where does this leave us?
    I would have thought that denying/ignoring what is not good to our life is a survival strategy that we all practice, vegans included, in order to be able to cope with a world full of people as selfish as we are. Moralising every second of our life as Bastian et al. pretend is a tad crazy. Life is hardly perfect and as Marx would put it: we are social animals, and crime is an inherent part of the social relationship. Little crimes, and sometimes not that little, are part of the social make up driving society up. Cheating, or eating meat in this case, was a most sensible way for our ancestors the chimps to ingest high protein food. Red meat is what made our brains bigger after all. That is, our ancestors cheated big time to bring us here. We may eventually agree in stopping eating cows, who knows, but I do not see how we are going to stop killing little animals when we walk on the grass. Thus, Bastian et al. should try another way of convincing everybody to turn vegan. Idealistic moralising is not going to work, at least not with natural born cheaters like this writer.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Carlos. I agree with you that it's very difficult if not impossible to always behave in ways that are fully aligned with one's moral values, especially because many situations involve cost-benefit trade-offs that are not black and white. Some people feel that the benefits of eating meat do not outweigh or justify the costs to animals, whereas others feel that they do. In the case of the research described in this post, my sense is that the authors' goal was to illustrate a psychological phenomenon rather than try to convince readers to become vegan, though I can understand that it might seem to imply that the decision to eat meat is morally inconsistent.

  3. Thanks for taking the time, Juli. You sound positive enough re this paper. I don’t think I need to state that I disagree with you about the authors’ goal, but the issue here is not between you and me.
    I am into hard science (physics), and ignoring for a sec that we all live in glass houses, I would like to think that Bastian et al.’s paper would not be accepted for publication in a top Physics journal. If you ask me, I would just accept it as a conference paper; i.e., “nice idea guys, show me some real data next year”. The stats are way too limited to warrant even the main conclusion about animals'minds without qualifications, let alone the far reaching ones about the out-groups.
    I have no problem with the experiments being biased; provide it is made explicit from the outset. We all do that, and are happy to see our bias supported by the outcomes. But in the discussion you are supposed to be your own Devil’s advocate, and there is where Bastain et al fail big time, both re their topic and the readers. For instance, they did not frame their audience as young, well to do, well fed females. (I hate to think then what they would have said about the stone-age hunter living a parasitic life, to paraphrase from John D Bernal’s “Science in History”, chasing mammoths in a cold Canadian winter to feed his starving family.) And I am sure the authors have heard of social classes by now.
    Instead, Bastian et al are only too happy to announce that they have developed a “unique” method, and straightaway went into extending it to the outgroups without double checking their methods, results and conclusions. Not only that, they even smuggled into the paper (as an end note) that the same tests applied to Vegans did not produce any shifts, although in actual reality the Vegans’ test was done in a different setting, and thus the comparison is not necessarily valid (their words, not mine). If it is not valid, then, why mention it? Of course, they could not help themselves, and any rigor left in their experiments went out the window.
    I am not denying that the shift in the mean value did occur, but I suspect the same shift would be observed if you did the same tests involving women that had abortions as opposed to those that did not have one. (To be fair, since Bastian et al’s experiment were done in full view of meat treats ready to be eaten, the testing in my thought-experiment should be carried out in the abortion clinic’s waiting room). Then, which group would be more likely to give a mind to the unborn after a good session of guilt? And then again, would a shift in the “right” direction make women who had one abortion less humans that the ones that did not?
    We do not need to get so dramatic, though. Let’s assume that you do the test on people that use, as opposed to those who don’t, the mobile phone while driving. Then you show them the police statistics, plus a few bloody photos and wheelchair bound people, etc. I suspect then that you will easily prove that people that use their mobiles while driving deny a mind to everyone else on the street, hence they are morally inferior to non-mobile users, etc. You get the picture.
    As I said, nothing wrong with doing biased experiments, but you should not be carried away by your success. In the best of cases this is what happened to Bastian et al.
    From where I stand, they should be honest with the readers, and come out of the vegans closet.

  4. The authors do note, as prior research shows, that people deny mental capacities to other people as well, in order to justify harm, failure to help, or inequality. Denying minds to animals is just one example. I agree that it would be useful to examine, in future research, whether the role of dissonance in motivated mind perception generalizes to other situations beyond meat consumption.

    I also think you raise a good point about the generalizability to other populations. Dissonance processes may not be as relevant for those who, for example, view meat-eating as essential to survival or as a natural part of the life cycle. Though the authors might argue that such beliefs may be "embedded within minds and cultures," protecting people from experiencing dissonance in the first place.

  5. Many Thanks Again, Juli. I think you are being exemplary kind adopting such a positive attitude towards papers on which you bear no responsibility.
    I am under no illusion that Bastian et al. did not intend to put these works forward as a case study of a sensible method of research. If anything, it was the other way around, and you can tell from the fact that the authors have been all too happy spreading the news that they have meat eating framed and explained for good. Just see how enthusiastically this research has been received in vegans’ circles all over. (Incidentally, I have nothing against vegans, and if you saw my usual diet you’ll see why, but that is not the point).
    And of course Bastian et al rise in parallel, without justification, that turning vegan is good for the environment. Well, I don't think so, and that is quite easy to prove. I 'll get into that later, but why is it that vegan groups all over all of the sudden are so interested in the environment? Quite simple: global warming is such a big and emotional issue, that if they could get science to support their lifestyle, everyone would be forced to turn vegan. You cannot argue with a number, or can you.
    Thus, if you can demonstrate WITH NUMBERS, that eating meat is morally bad, and on top, bad for the environment, you are done. Marx and Engels, wherever your poor souls are, eat your hearts out: it is not the economy, is what we eat. Forget the revolution.

    Back to the environment: vegans will tell you that eating meat gives you cancer of the colon, etc. and generally speaking, kills you sooner. Vegans, instead, live longer. Thus if we stop feeding on cows, we not only live longer, we stop global warming on its tracks, and we don’t even need to stop burning coal or gasoline.
    Unfortunately, there is no free lunch: look at the thing this way: If you get everybody off their cars and onto their bikes, the life expectancy increases by about 4-5 years. So we save a bit of CO2 in gasoline, but, because we stick around a few more years, we end up using lot more energy in our daily life.(click here to see the numbers)
    Thus, if getting everybody off their cars increases the overpopulation, and the same if we all go the vegan way, what is the best deal for the environment?
    Let all meat eaters drive happily and die younger. (Good riddance anyways).

  6. Dear Juli, I apologise for using your blog as my personal soap box. Here I am posting a most relevant excerpt from this now classic 1974 paper by Michael Martin (1974, A Critique of moral vegetarianism), readily available on the Internet, but conveniently ignored by Bastian et al. (an in-house example of cognitive dissonance?

    "The Argument from Brutalization:
    It is argued that the killing and eating of meat indirectly tends to brutalize people. Conversely, vegetarianism, it is argued, tends to humanize people.

    This argument can have a strong or weak form depending on what is meant by “brutalize” and “humanize.” In the strong form, it maintains that eating meat (indirectly) influences people to be less kind and more violent to other people; conversely, not eating meat tends to make people more kind and less violent. In the weaker form of the argument it is maintained only that eating meat tends to make people less sensitive to people’s inhumane treatment of other people and more willing to accept people’s brutality and inhumanity to other people.

    Whatever form the argument takes, it is important to understand its status. I have argued that there is no incompatibility between being a nonvegetarian and advocating the painless and humane treatment of animals. Consequently, there is no logical connection between being a nonvegetarian and the cruel treatment of animals, let alone the cruel treatment of persons (human or otherwise). Similarly, there is no logical connection between eating meat and being insensitive to the inhumane treatment of animals or humans.

    The argument from brutalization, however, does not appear to postulate a logical connection between vegetarianism and inhumanity but rather a psychological one. Thus the strong form of the argument seems to assume the truth of the following psychological generalization.
    1. People who do not eat meat tend to be less cruel and inhumane to persons than people who do eat meat.
    As far as I know, no good evidence has ever been collected to support or refute (1). Pacifists like Gandhi are often cited as examples of people who are vegetarians and who are opposed to violence. But Hitler was also a vegetarian. Indeed, Hitler’s vegetarianism is a constant source of embarrassment to vegetarians, and they sometimes attempt to explain it away. For example, the Vegetarian News Digest argued that “there is no information that indicates [Hitler] eliminated flesh food for humanitarian reasons.” But the reason Hitler did not eat meat is irrelevant to the present argument. Here we are only concerned with whether or not eating meat tends to make people less brutal.

    But perhaps the psychological generalization presupposed is a little different from (1). Perhaps the argument from brutalization presupposes
    2. People who do not eat meat for moral reasons tend to be less brutal than people who do eat meat.
    In terms of (2) the comments of the Vegetarian News Digest are not irrelevant. The case of Hitler need not count against (2).

    The truth of (2) is by no means self-evident, however, and empirical evidence is needed to support it. Although I am not aware that such evidence is available at the present time, let us suppose that (2) is well confirmed. This by itself would hardly be a strong argument for vegetarianism, since the following generalization could also be true.
    3. People who eat meat after reflection on the morality of eating meat are less brutal than people who eat meat without such reflection.
    The bulk of the population has given no reflection at all to the morality of eating meat. Consequently, a comparison between moral vegetarians and meat eaters at large is hardly fair. Putting it in another way, supposing (2) to be true, moral vegetarianism per se might not be responsible for humanizing people. Rather, what might be responsible for such humanizing is simply moral reflection, reflection that might lead either to the acceptance or to the rejection of moral vegetarianism."

    continues in the next post.

  7. This post concludes the above post, excerpted from Michael Martin's 1974 paper A critique of moral vegetarianism.

    "What would be significant is if the following generalization were true.

    4. People who do not eat meat after serious reflection on the morality of meat eating are less brutal than people who eat meat after such reflection.

    The truth of (4) would enable us to say with some confidence that something besides moral reflection is involved in becoming less brutal. At the present time, however, there is no reason to suppose that (4) is true.

    Similar considerations indicate that the weaker form of the argument from brutalization also fails. The weaker form of the argument seems to assume
    5. People who don’t eat meat for moral reasons are less likely than people who do eat meat to be insensitive to people’s inhumane treatment of other people.
    Whether (5) is true or not is uncertain. But in any case (5) is not terribly relevant to moral vegetarianism. A relevant comparison would not be between moral vegetarians and nonvegetarians in general but between moral vegetarians and nonvegetarians who eat meat after moral reflection, that is between moral vegetarians and what might be called moral nonvegetarians. Thus, what needs to be established is not (5) but
    6. People who don’t eat meat after reflection on the morality of eating meat are less likely than people who do eat meat after such reflection to be insensitive to people’s inhumane treatment of other people.
    At the present time we have no more reason to accept (6) than we have to accept (4). And we have no reason to accept (4). Thus the argument from brutalization fails."

    My own conclusion (CHC): If anybody thinks that Bastian et al. provide some of the missing empirical evidence of brutalization through their experiments, consider first the issue of "fairness" in the comparison so nicely put forward by Martin; and if that is not enough, keep in mind that the stats in Bastian et al.'s papers are essentially worthless.

  8. Hi Carlos,

    Michael here from PYM. I think that you have been heard loud and clear in the comments. Your skepticism, to put it mildly, about the paper that Juli so eloquently summarized on our blog has been recorded. Thanks so much for reading. I hope that you will leave the conversation here now and move onto the next project!

    Thanks again for reading!

  9. No worries Michael. Got the message.
    Keep up the good work.

  10. Hi dear i am student of Psychology
    and you know it's a study of mind. so i am finding such nice post that help in my studies. Thanks for sharing it. currently i am study this website this is Psychology.

  11. benign moral violations in which no harm is done (for example, a man rubs his bare genitals on his pet kitten and the kitten purrs and appears to enjoy the contact). Canine Cataracts

  12. This was interesting and informative to read. I wonder if the author is a vegetarian/vegan : ) ?
    Few days ago I wrote about Charles Bukowski and the way he felt working in a meat packing factory. Later on however he enjoys sitting on a "nice leather seat".
    A friend of mine referred me to this article and "cognitive dissonance" explained it for me. Thanks