Meat Eating And Strategic Ignorance
Investigations into factory farming (and other types of animal exploitation) appear to be reaching a wider audience, but vegans and vegetarians still make up only a small percent of the population in most countries. According to numbers from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the average person consumes 48kg (105 lbs) of meat per year, an appetite that requires the killing of more than 50 billion animals per year. As people become wealthier and factory farming spreads to less developed countries, the number of animals slaughtered for food will be even larger. So-called “meat lovers” have long been considered to be “consumers who focus on aspects like price and taste, and who are indifferent to meat-associated problems,” but is this always the case? Can individuals be aware of “meat-associated problems” but also continue to eat meat?
This study examines consumer indifference toward meat eating, focusing on two types of people: “1) consumers who do not care and, therefore, ignore the issue and 2) consumers who do care but strategically choose to ignore the issue.” According to the authors, “research often overestimates the number of indifferent consumers,” so we may be able to obtain new insights by focusing on these types of consumers. They begin by discussing cognitive dissonance and the fact that many people “love eating meat but do not like the idea that animals suffer and are killed for meat consumption, which is known as the ‘meat paradox,'” which we have covered before. Strategic ignorance differs from cognitive dissonance in the sense that it resolves the internal conflict “by choosing to avoid information or thoughts related to animal welfare conditions, which cause the discomfort. Subsequently, the individual can enjoy a steak without having any concerns.”
The study involved more than 3,200 Dutch respondents recruited through an online research agency and separated into two groups: “Case Antibiotics” were selected to “identify an ‘egocentric conflict’ between the love for eating meat and (personal as well as public) health issues (i.e., antibiotics)”; the second group, “Case Chicken” were selected to “identify an ‘altruistic conflict’ between the love for eating meat and one’s attitude towards animals that suffer for producing inexpensive meat.” They identified four clusters in their results:
- “Struggling consumers” are those that have negative feelings toward meat consumption combined with “low scores on willingness to ignore and positive scores on perceived responsibility”
- “Coping consumers” are those that have low levels of negative emotions toward meat consumption, but also have a score low on willingness to ignore its negative effects and score high on perceived responsibility.
- “Indifferent consumers” are those that have low negative emotions toward meat consumption and high willingness to ignore its negative effects and may be the hardest to reach because they simply “do not care.” According to the researchers, people in this cluster “do not feel responsible, do not aim to learn about the issue, and do not experience high levels of cognitive dissonance.”
- Finally, the “strategically ignorant consumers” have “low amounts of negative emotions, low levels of cognitive dissonance, and score positive on the willingness to ignore (the negative effects of meat consumption).” These consumers, according to the research, understand that they and other meat consumers are responsible for the situation, but this type of consumer “strategically ignores information about the issue.”
For animal advocates, this study shows that the motivations for eating meat may be even more complex than we think. The types of messages or advocacy that effectively reach a “struggling” consumer are unlikely to be the same for reaching a “strategically ignorant” consumer. Understanding the difference may be an important distinction in our advocacy efforts, materials, and campaigns. While reaching struggling consumers may be easier and perhaps more “cost effective,” cracking the shell of indifferent and strategically ignorant consumers also has merit. Reaching those consumers that are hardest to reach, however, will require more research and better targeting. The study of strategic ignorance is still in its infancy and this study would seem to be an important contribution to the nascent field.