Rationalizing Meat Consumption: The 4Ns
As more evidence emerges that eating meat damages the environment, affects personal health, and causes suffering to animals, some people are finding it increasingly difficult to justify consuming it. This study looks at the psychological mechanisms that people employ to solve the “meat paradox” – continuing to eat meat despite a growing body of evidence that action should be taken to the contrary. The researchers find that, among the various techniques used, people most often employ a strategy that frames meat eating as natural, normal, necessary, and nice.
The more evidence that emerges that meat eating has negative consequences for animals, human health, and the environment, the more that omnivores “are confronted by a ‘meat paradox.'” This study examines this paradox and looks at the times when meat eaters “find themselves in social situations where they must defend their commitments to eating meat.” The authors expand on Melanie Joy’s “Three Ns of Justification” – where she argues that through a recurrent process of socialization, people come to believe that eating meat is natural, normal, and necessary – to include an additional “N” described as “nice.” The meaning of “nice” is that people enjoy eating meat, and think it tastes good. The authors of this study suspect that previous research has ignored the “nice” justification “because it constitutes a very weak moral defense,” but it may actually be the case that people employ the other justifications to mask the fact that they simply enjoy eating meat. In this study, they sought to find out to what extent the four justifications affect people’s decision to continue to consume meat, and explore other ways that omnivores can be profiled.
The research found that, “morally motivated vegetarians serve as a source of implicit moral reproach for many omnivores, eliciting behaviors designed to defend against moral condemnation.” The justifications presented in the 4Ns are, in this sense, a defense mechanism – a reactive way of making the individual in question feel better about consuming animal products. The study found that “individuals who tended to endorse the 4Ns included fewer animals in their circle of moral concern, attributed fewer mental capacities to cows, were less motivated by ethical concerns when making food choices, and were less active in advocating on behalf of animals.” However, it was also found that people who employed the 4Ns were also “more tolerant and supportive of social inequality,” and “were less proud of their consumer choices pertaining to animals.” In addition, people employing the 4Ns also “experienced less guilt” about their food choices, “suggesting that the 4Ns are effective for reducing guilt.”
“The relationships people have with animals are complicated,” the authors say. Though people live with companion animals that are not much different from the animals they eat (apart from their cultural status), people employ many different strategies (including the 4Ns) to defend their actions. The authors conclude their study by noting bluntly that “rationalizing enables omnivores to continue in a dietary practice that has increasingly come under public scrutiny.” Eating meat is a sensitive subject, and this kind of data is useful for advocates to figure out the best strategy to open people’s minds about their eating habits, without them becoming defensive.
Recent theorizing suggests the 4Ns—that is, the belief that eating meat is natural, normal, necessary, and nice—are common rationalizations people use to defend their choice of eating meat. However, such theorizing has yet to be subjected to empirical testing. Six studies were conducted on the 4Ns. Studies 1a-1b demonstrated that the 4N classification captures the vast majority (83%-91%) of justifications people naturally offer in defense of eating meat. In Study 2, individuals who endorsed the 4Ns tended also to objectify (dementalize) animals and included fewer animals in their circle of moral concern, and this was true independent of social dominance orientation. Subsequent studies (Studies 3-5) showed that individuals who endorsed the 4Ns tend not to be motivated by ethical concerns when making food choices, are less involved in animal-welfare advocacy, less driven to restrict animal products from their diet, less proud of their animal-product decisions, tend to endorse Speciesist attitudes, tend to consume meat and animal products more frequently, and are highly committed to eating meat. Furthermore, omnivores who strongly endorsed the 4Ns tended to experience less guilt about their animal-product decisions, highlighting the guilt-alleviating function of the 4Ns.