Cognitive Dissonance: Why We Love Animals And Still “Consume” Them
People love animals. Sure, it’s mostly cats and dogs and fellow primates, but even farmed animals and lab animals and wildlife receive strong support, at least on paper. Large majorities of the population would agree that all animals should be treated humanely and not made to suffer. Most people also think we should have strict laws enforcing protection for all types of animals. But due to lack of awareness and an unconscious unwillingness to accept the facts, most people do not acknowledge that their behavior results in animal suffering.
Cognitive dissonance is defined by Merriam-Webster as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.” Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force, but even more powerful is a person’s innate psychological resistance to it. As humans, we work hard to avoid learning about things that may cause us to question our own actions or beliefs or attitudes. It’s more than just resistance to change; it’s also about avoiding a personal identity crisis. Like a kind of proactive ignorance in the interest of psychological self-preservation, which is certainly understandable, if not exactly laudable.
Avoiding cognitive dissonance allows people to function, but it also allows them to continue “consuming” animals in huge quantities (and often using cruel and inhumane methods). Of course, by “consume” I mean all types of consumption, including eating, wearing, testing on, and hunting animals. I have always been intrigued by the word “omnivore,” for which the literal translation from Latin is “one who devours all.” Humans are serious omnivores, and despite our stated empathy for non-human animals, most people successfully ignore the ubiquitous and overwhelming threats to their welfare.
Consider these examples of disconnects between thought and action (all studies are based on a representative sample of U.S. adults):
- 72% of adults strongly or somewhat agree with the goals of the animal rights movement (Gallup Poll, 2000), but only 5% of people belong to animal groups (World Values Survey, 1990).
- 67% of adults strongly or somewhat agree that “an animal’s right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a person’s right to live free of suffering” (Associated Press Poll, 1995), but donations to human causes far eclipse animal-related donations.
- 95% say that it is “very” or “somewhat” important “that parents and their children discuss the importance of respecting all living creatures” (NCAP, 1999), but only half of U.S. states have laws mandating humane education in elementary schools, and most of these laws fail to define humane education or the qualifications of humane educators (EarthSave, 2003).
- 62% strongly or somewhat support “passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals” (Gallup Poll, May 2003), but farmed animals are still not protected under the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Of course, there are many factors that impact these issues at both personal and institutional levels. But the above points are examples of how what people think often differs dramatically from how they behave when it comes to many animal protection issues. The challenge for animal advocates is to determine how to most effectively encourage their target audience toward cognitive realignment. This might involve changing attitudes and beliefs (the cognitive component), and/or focusing on behavior first (e.g., by providing alternatives) and then encouraging attitudinal changes to follow.
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