Self-Identity And Veg*n Resistance
Omnivorous diets are the norm in many Western countries. Those who choose to adopt a vegan or vegetarian (veg*n) diet commonly have three primary motivations for going against the norm: animal welfare, environmental protection, and/or human health. Although extensive research shows the benefits of plant-based diets, veg*nism is still in the minority. So what is stopping omnivores from changing their eating habits?
Researchers have tried to propose many barriers to veg*nism, from economic and societal factors to more personal beliefs. For example, the authors of this paper note that many people criticize veg*nism for being a “privileged” diet (although other researchers have challenged the idea of vegan privilege). One underexplored area of veg*n resistance is the idea that veg*n messages challenge meat-eaters’ self-concept and moral identity. In this literature review, the authors explore how the rejection of veg*n advocacy is rooted in the psychological notion of self-identity.
People form perceptions about themselves based on the groups to which they belong. In general, people are motivated to maintain a positive self-identity that aligns with the identities of others in their in-groups. In the West, for example, “carnism” is an ideology embraced by the vast majority of consumers. Carnism is the belief that eating meat is nice, normal, natural, and necessary, and it pressures people to conform to meat consumption while rejecting veg*nism as something abnormal.
Generally, the authors argue that people who eat meat aren’t actively trying to harm animals through their diet. Because of this, when confronted with veg*n advocacy, omnivores are faced with a dilemma: they realize that their actions deviate from their moral values or positive self-image. This results in cognitive dissonance, and it can either lead to a change in behavior or cause meat-eaters to use psychological defense mechanisms that resist change.
The authors describe two types of psychological defense mechanisms: pro-carnist defenses or counter-veg*n defenses. Regarding pro-carnist defenses, it’s common for meat-eaters to engage in “motivated reasoning,” or arrive at a biased conclusion that justifies one’s self-identity, even if the conclusion is flawed. For example, omnivores may justify their diet by claiming it’s not harmful to animals, despite the evidence showing the cruelties of animal agriculture.
A pro-carnist defense can also take the form of “motivated ignorance” to deny or distort evidence. This allows meat-eaters to continue eating animal products without guilt. Examples of this include avoiding information about animal agriculture or reminders that meat came from animals. Language that separates animals from their products — calling pig meat “pork,” for instance — is a common way that consumers, and industries, try to obscure the reality of meat consumption.
Counter-veg*n defense mechanisms often take the form of stereotyping or stigmatizing people who follow a veg*n diet. The authors point out that it’s common for veg*ns to be criticized as too moralistic. Research suggests that omnivores overestimate the extent of judgment from veg*ns, leading them to justify their stereotypes. Because carnism is the dominant ideology in society, it becomes easier to stigmatize veg*ns as unacceptable. As a result, veg*ns often face discrimination, isolation, and other negative effects.
One’s self-identity is a key factor in how the above defense mechanisms manifest. For instance, those who identify more strongly as a meat-eater are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning to justify meat and motivated ignorance of animal minds. Omnivores who place less value on meat consumption (e.g., flexitarians) are less likely to negatively stereotype veg*ns.
There are many factors that play a role in shaping self-identity, especially as it relates to diet and meat consumption. For example, research suggests that meat-eaters are more likely to identify as conservatives, while political liberals tend to feel less threatened by veg*ns. Meat-eating is also strongly associated with traditional norms of masculinity in the West, meaning that women are often more willing to reduce their meat intake. Other factors that play a role in shaping self-identity include one’s feelings of human supremacy, cultural identity, beliefs about health, and personal attachment to meat.
Sometimes, when faced with veg*n advocacy, omnivores may feel motivated to change their behavior (either by reducing or eliminating meat). Currently, as the authors point out, meat rejection is still in the minority and has a negligible influence over the carnist majority. However, as the minority position gets more acceptance over time, carnists may commit to behavioral change to avoid dissonance — either by changing immediately, or gradually. Innovations such as the widespread availability of plant-based products and the rise of flexitarianism may play a role in driving change.
Interviews with vegans suggest that consumers may initially ignore claims against animal product consumption while becoming more open to eating meat alternatives. Over time, they may decide to change their diet if they can no longer ignore the facts facing them. As omnivores gradually convert from carnist behavior to meat avoidance, their identity will also shift from meat-eater to veg*n. With this change, they may be more likely to internalize the motivations for veg*nism, including disgust toward animal product consumption.
Although this was a theory-driven paper, it offers some takeaways for animal advocates. For example, the authors claim that veg*n diets are more likely to be maintained with social support, strong ethical motivations, and knowledge about veg*n nutrition and affordability. When it comes to engaging committed meat-eaters, it’s important to gain a fuller understanding of the carnist identity and how it impacts individual dietary behavior. While it’s not an easy process to convince dedicated carnists to change their diet, advocates can try to show that veg*nism isn’t a belief system in the margins. By emphasizing the similarities between veg*ns and omnivores, consumers may be more willing to accept the veg*n identity and explore alternative diets.