Moral Psychology: A Key Ingredient In Meat Reduction
There is a lot of information available on the terrible treatment of farmed animals. What’s more, the majority of the meat consumed in the U.S. comes from factory farms. Despite knowing this, most consumers remain skeptical and continue eating animal products. Many scholars have written this off as a “weakness of will” among meat-eaters. Regardless of the reason, meat reduction and veg*n campaigns continue to prove challenging.
Using health messages to encourage meat reduction can work for a while, but according to the authors of this paper, it doesn’t seem to have longevity for most veg*ns. Since health trends are usually temporary, lowering meat consumption for that reason doesn’t always last.
While ethical arguments tend to encourage long-lasting diet change, they do not work for the majority of meat-eaters. Having the knowledge that animals in factory farms suffer, while also knowing that mistreating animals is morally wrong, should (in theory) lead consumers to conclude that supporting factory farms is also morally wrong. Unfortunately, not everyone comes to that conclusion. Therefore, the authors of this paper argue that, rather than a weakness of will, many consumers who continue to eat meat are demonstrating two concepts in moral psychology: “motivated reasoning” and “social proof.”
Motivated reasoning involves making judgments and decisions based on your existing biases. For example, you may actively read news sources or social media content that confirms your point of view while ignoring alternative viewpoints. You may also “misremember” things that compromise your self-perception.
Motivated reasoning may also play a role in meat consumption. Despite the truth about factory farms being readily available, a lot of consumers still believe that abuse in the animal agriculture industry is uncommon. Some adopt beliefs that animals can’t feel pain, or that humans are better than other species, to support the desire to eat meat.
One way to counteract this is to encourage “moral consistency.” Advocates can try to create relationships between meat-eaters and the animals they consume, as this emotional connection can motivate behavioral change. They might show parallels between companion animals and farmed animals, or encourage consumers to interact with farmed animals at sanctuaries.
Promoting strong emotions like disgust and empathy while encouraging moral consistency may also spark behavior change. For example, an experiment was done where meat eaters were shown videos from factory farms over the course of a month. While most meat-eaters maintained their motivated reasoning, some reported changing their dietary habits after thinking more closely about their moral values.
Social proof is looking to others, particularly your inner circle, to help aid in decision-making. For example, studies have found that telling consumers that other people are doing something — say, reusing towels at a hotel — encourages them to take the same action themselves. In other words, we often turn to others before following social norms and navigating other social dynamics.
When it comes to eating meat, omnivores see the majority around them eating meat too, so they believe it must not be inherently bad. It doesn’t help the cause that many vegetarians return to eating meat. The authors argue that this is largely due to the social aspect surrounding food.
To combat social proof from a psychological perspective, the authors recommend encouraging meat reduction among key social influencers and using dynamic social norms in advocacy messaging. Another strategy is to make veg*n options the default on menus at schools, cafeterias, and other social institutions. When patrons see meatless food as the default option, they perceive this as the acceptable social norm.
Overall, despite the deeply ingrained tendency to consume meat, there are ways to influence and ultimately change these habits. Leveraging the psychology behind motivated reasoning and social proof may not encourage everyone to go veg*n, but it can make a difference to the benefit of countless factory-farmed animals.