Gender, Meat-Eating, And Cognitive Dissonance
As animal advocates, we all likely know someone who claims to love animals but who also feels comfortable consuming meat. In fact, we may know many people who act this way. It’s a state of cognitive dissonance that some refer to as the “meat paradox,” and its effects are profound: in one study, researchers found that while 59% of participants strongly disapproved of inhumane killing methods at a slaughterhouse, only 16% strongly disapproved of eating animals from a slaughterhouse that used such methods.
In this study, a team of researchers sought to understand the “meat paradox” by determining whether people’s attitudes towards eating meat changed when presented information about the life of the animal from which the meat came. The study also attempted to determine whether attitudes differed between genders.
The researchers surveyed 460 meat-eating individuals, aged 18 to 85, who they placed into two separate groups. The first group—the animal group—was shown a passage of text and footage detailing the life and death of a lamb in a slaughterhouse. They were also shown a video of a lamb opening two fastened gates to demonstrate the intelligence and ability of these animals. The second group was shown an article containing nutritional and cooking information for lamb meat.
The individuals then answered questions about their general emotions towards what they had seen, specific questions such as “do you believe that to eat meat is an unquestionable right of every person?” and one open-ended question asking if they would continue to eat meat with the same regularity and why.
The first part of the study found that individuals in the group who were presented with information about the life and capabilities of lambs were significantly more likely to feel emotions like disgust and unease towards meat, as well as greater concern for animals. They also discovered that women in this group were far more likely to feel concern for animals than their male counterparts. The authors explain that women usually separate the meat from the living animal to resolve the meat paradox, so when they are unable to disconnect the two, they experience more negative emotions. On the other hand, despite feeling slightly more negative emotions, men felt more attached to meat as a food after seeing the live animal. The study proposes a theory that seeing the meat as an animal rather than food triggers an idea of dominance and power in males.
In the second part of the study, the authors asked individuals if what they had seen would affect their eating habits. For the 93% that said it would not change their eating habits, attitudes varied. Some respondents clearly stated that they didn’t think of meat on a plate as an animal, some respondents got defensive, but most (1/3) used one of three arguments to justify their diet: “I need protein,” “I like meat,” or “it is my right to eat meat.”
The researchers note that most commonly, people justify their decision to eat meat with the 3 N’s: necessity (meat is necessary to survive), normalcy (everybody around me eats meat), and naturalness (humans were designed to eat meat). The study also discovered a “new N” that had not been featured in previous studies: neutralization, where respondents say that they have reduced their individual impact by changing one small aspect of their diet, such as eating ethically responsible meat or cutting out red meat. More than just being new, however, this was the most common justification among study participants.
This study offers three major takeaways for animal advocates. First, advocates should consider different approaches when persuading men and women to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption. While women usually respond well to being presented with their moral inconsistencies, men can sometimes get defensive, leading them to become more attached to meat and consume more of it. Second, the research demonstrated that exposing people to the direct connection between prepared meat and the farmed animals from which it comes can lead to reduced consumption of meat, especially in women. Third, advocates should work on combating the predominant justifications for meat eating.