The Role Of Moral Hypocrisy In Buying Meat
If you are visiting this website and checking out blog posts like this regularly, you probably already know about the problems with factory farming. With the global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, the challenges of how to feed everyone while reducing the impact of our food system on the planet, people, and animals is growing.
Facing these problems, farmers are often under pressure to use factory farming methods, which means that animals used for food live confined in small spaces indoors for the majority of their lives. It is estimated that over 90% of farmed animals globally live in factory farms and have to tolerate extremely restrictive conditions in which they face a higher risk of lameness and infections, and experience stress, anxiety, and aggression. However, since these cruel farming practices also require the intensive use of resources such as grain-based food, water, and medication, factory farming has numerous negative impacts on the environment.
Although people are becoming more aware of the many threats that come with factory farming, per capita meat consumption has increased globally with an estimated 72.5 billion animals slaughtered in 2018. This indicates that consumers probably haven’t yet fully grasped the far-reaching consequences of these practices, and that shopping behavior might need to change in the future.
In this blog post, we’ll look at how aware the public actually is about factory farming, what factors might influence people’s attitudes towards animal welfare and their shopping behaviors, and what can be done to counteract them.
How Concerned Is The Public Now?
A strong indicator of the public’s concern for farmed animals seems to be how much a person actually knows about the topic; since food consumption and food production are often separate practices, and the public has little-to-no direct experience with farms or slaughterhouses, people have poor knowledge of related issues. This often leaves consumers with not enough or wrong information about the animal welfare concerns and practices present in factory farming.
It’s not only knowledge (or the lack thereof) that is an issue — social or demographic factors seem to affect public concern as well. One study found that consumers who bought caged-eggs were older, less educated, price sensitive, and big chain supermarkets buyers, and overall less concerned about hens’ welfare. Most of the non-caged-eggs buyers were less price sensitive and often went to farmers’ markets or local/organic retailers, and were generally more concerned about the animals’ living conditions.
Luckily, the public concern for animal welfare in food production is growing worldwide, and consumers want to know more about what is happening to animals used for food:
- Respondents in a recent study indicated they were concerned with welfare of farmed animals such as beef cows (59%), pigs (59%) or dairy cows (60%) in the U.S.
- Similarly, consumers in Europe reported being concerned with farmed animal welfare (59.7% layers, 57.7% broilers, 57.5% pigs) in Finland, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK and Italy (69.8%).
- Likewise indicated respondents in a Mexican study that farmed animal welfare is an important topic for them (8.1 on a 10-point scale from 0, not important, to 10, very important).
Interestingly, despite little understanding and knowledge about this topic, the public’s level of concern is increasing, and giving consumers additional information about on-package labels can influence consumers’ purchase intentions immensely.
All of this to say that meat-eaters should feel more pressure to change their behavior. So why isn’t that happening yet? One point for many consumers seems to be the price of higher welfare produced meat. But although people may express concern about factory farming, the level of expressed concerns, and the purchase and consumption of welfare friendly products don’t match. What else plays a role?
The Meat Paradox/Meat-Related Cognitive Dissonance
People’s expressed attitudes are often weak predictors of their behavior; there can be worlds between what someone believes in, and what someone actually does. Appearing moral (perhaps agreeing with someone that consuming factory farmed meat is bad) while avoiding the actual costs of being moral (still buying this meat because it’s just so cheap) has been coined “moral hypocrisy.” The reason why people’s behavior and their expressed attitudes can differ so much is that both underlie other external influences such as expectations or behavior of others.
Once a point has been reached where we feel tension because we can’t bring our attitudes/moral beliefs into alignment with our behavior, we experience cognitive dissonance. With meat-eating, this is sometimes called the meat paradox or meat-related cognitive dissonance (MRCD). To relieve us from this unpleasant feeling, we either have to change our behavior or adapt our attitudes/beliefs. This means we either finally stop buying meat or we come up with strategies to reassure us that it’s still ok to eat it, perhaps because we don’t like animals anyway or we don’t care about how farmed animals are treated.
There are several strategies to prevent MRCD from occurring. One important aspect of psychological defense strategies to prevent MRCD from happening involves the exposure to information; the first protection is to actively avoid information about the procedures involved in farmed animal use. Most consumers would feel distressed when confronted with unpleasant knowledge, which is why they selectively expose themselves to information or media they agree with. Studies have shown that this avoidance is often facilitated by cultural beliefs that it’s not possible NOT to eat meat and that the individual’s choices won’t make any differences.
Meanwhile, some individuals have a negative opinion of farmed animals without actually knowing about the conditions they have to live in, and choose to ignore accompanying procedures. In this way, willful ignorance can allow consumers to escape feeling hypocritical, with meat eaters being especially ignorant of the conditions farmed animals have to live in and underestimating the level of suffering the animals endure.
Another defense mechanism is to dissociate meat from its animal origin, pretending that there’s no animal actually involved in the process meat consumption. This can happen through changes in language, substituting words that remind consumers of animal flesh for words such as bacon, steak, or hamburger. This is supported by the fact that many supermarket customers prefer pieces of meat not to look like animals, which is why people tend to buy less meat when explicitly reminded of the animal origin. The more consumers are exposed to unprocessed meat such as pork roasts with the head present, the less dissociation occurs and empathy for the killed animal is experienced.
Some people are willing to admit that they eat meat, but often underestimate the amount they eat, so the feelings of conflict do not really concern them. By underreporting how much meat they consume, individuals try to convince themselves and others that they actually avoid eating meat.
Another strategy to justify shopping behavior is to put others down who are morally motivated (called “do-gooder derogation”) such as veg*ns, who are viewed generally positively by non-veg*ns (although attitudes towards vegans are often less positive than attitudes towards vegetarians). Individuals who believe that veg*ns see themselves as superior might prevent experiencing MRCD by diverting the attention elsewhere.
There are also mechanisms to reduce moral guilt once we experience MRCG: One mechanism for some consumers is to only eat meat from animals who people perceive to have less cognitive ability or who are thought to be less intelligent. Meat eaters may also escape their guilt by seeing animals farmed for food as unfeeling, believing that some species are less capable of suffering than others. In this sense, animal types are often “ranked” and compartmentalized, with those farmed for food often attributed a lower status than other types of animals such as companions.
Some strategies focus on meat consumption rather than production and justify eating meat as natural, necessary, normal, or nice, based on biological hierarchy, cultural norms and personality traits. Animal suffering is seen as a cost to simply being human, with other people accepting and sharing the same problematic behavior, decreasing the need to reduce MRCD through attitude changes. If everyone is doing it, how bad can it be?
Finally, some consumers deny the moral responsibility they have on a dietary basis, because meat is seen to be essential for a balanced diet. The reasoning goes that we have no other choice if we want to live a healthy life, and are therefore not responsible for harming animals. Consumers further pass on responsibility by blaming third parties in the food system, because they perceive themselves to be not influential enough to change farmed animal welfare standards.
What Can Be Done About This?
Attitudes can predict behavior when other influences (such as the expectations of others on what we do or say) are minimal, when attitudes are specific to the behavior, and when the attitude is potent; so it’s still important to focus on what educating people about factory farming and encouraging them not to turn away from unpleasant information.
Instead, we can encourage people to stay open-minded and think critically; knowledge is a key component sensitizing people to farmed animals’ welfare, and we have much work to do to spread information, and help others resist falling into logic traps and psychological defense mechanisms. In the meantime, we can do our best to “nudge” people and encourage default consumption options to be animal-friendly.
Animal advocacy organizations are trying hard to reach the public and inform consumers about the unpleasant truths that come along with their steaks. Campaigns should continuously aim for showing the public the conditions farmed animals have to live in, to make it more “psychologically costly” for meat-eaters to keep deceiving attitudes.
As we have seen, there are many ways to help us reduce or even avoid the discomfort we experience that accompanies MRCD. There’s still a long way to go, but it looks like raising consciousness can indeed encourage individuals to act according to their beliefs, helping to reduce the suffering of billions of animals.