Unwelcome Reminders: Meat Imagery And Antiveg*n Sentiments
Vegetarians and vegans (veg*ns), have you ever experienced prejudiced from meat-eaters for your lifestyle choice? You may have been deemed to be judgmental, militant, or other negative terms. It’s a story that many veg*ns can likely relate to. Antiveg*n sentiments can be stressful, tiring, and frustrating.
Could a shift in perspective help to reduce these sentiments? In this study, a team of British and Canadian researchers sought to investigate whether highlighting the connection between meat and animals could lead to decreased meat consumption as well as increased empathy for veg*ns. The driving concept behind this research is the “meat paradox.”
At the heart of it is the idea that many people do indeed find the idea of consuming animals to be distressing. People do not want to harm animals but nonetheless consume them and their byproducts. To circumvent this conflict, humans distance themselves (psychologically and physically) from the origins of their meat through factory farms, which keep the raising and slaughtering process away from the public eye, and the butchering process, which makes the end-resulting meat appear nothing like the animal it originated from through skinning and cutting.
Previous research has demonstrated that reminding people of the animal origins of their meat, (forming “animal-meat associations”), increases empathy and decreases desire for meat. The present research sought to extend those findings, examining whether distress for consuming meat and empathy for animals were mediators between animal-meat associations and willingness to consume meat. Further, the researchers examined whether increased animal-meat associations would decrease antiveg*n attitudes as a byproduct of increased pro-animal sentiments.
In addition to measuring empathy for animals, disgust for meat, and distress about meat consumption, the researchers also measured each participant’s levels of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), beliefs in the “4Ns”–that eating meat is natural, normal, necessary, and nice–and conservatism. These measures address the social constructs that may influence people’s attitudes towards meat-eating and veg*ns.
In Study 1, after measuring participants’ levels of RWA, 4Ns, and conservatism, they were presented a series of images. One group saw three pairs of photos of meat dishes alongside the animals that they came from (lamb and lambchop, cow and steak, pig and ham) while the other group saw only the photos of the meat dish. Each image asked about the participant’s empathy for the animal, distress about meat consumption, and willingness to eat the meat dish. The study wrapped up by asking participants about their attitudes towards veg*ns.
The results of Study 1 reveal that higher identification with RWA, the 4Ns, and conservatism was correlated with less empathy for animals and distress for eating meat, while also correlated with higher antiveg*n attitudes and willingness to eat meat. As hypothesized, the participants in the animal-meat association experimental condition reported greater levels of empathy and distress, which were tied to less willingness to eat meat. However, those qualities did not correspond to antiveg*n attitudes. Whether participants were in one group or the other had a nonsignificant impact on their antiveg*n attitudes, but those in the animal-meat condition did show slightly less negative attitudes towards veg*ns. This suggests an indirect relationship between distress and empathy and antiveg*n attitudes. Those who scored higher on the 4N scale were much more likely to have an antiveg*n sentiment.
Study 2 looked at the relationship between animal-meat reminders (versus meat-alone) and willingness to eat meat as well as antiveg*n attitudes. They also measured a new variable: disgust towards meat. Notably, participants did not complete the 4N assessment in this run because the researchers were concerned that exposure to ideas such as “You cannot get all the protein, vitamins, and minerals you need on an all plant-based diet” primed participants to rationalize their meat consumption for the study.
Instead, researchers measured participants’ levels of social dominance orientation (SDO), which describes an endorsement of social hierarchy and intergroup inequalities and has been associated with greater tendencies to exploit animals and have antiveg*n bias. Finally, this study also looked at how much participants felt that veg*ns threaten cultural values and practices. The stimuli of showing a series of images based on being in the animal-meat association group or the meat-only group was the same as in Study 1.
The results of the second were similar to the first one’s results; animal-meat reminders led to decreased willingness to eat meat and indirectly reduced antiveg*n attitudes. Those in the animal-meat reminder group also showed greater disgust towards meat. The SDO quality was no more significant than RWA or conservatism in predicting responses, and participants across the board in the animal-meat reminder group felt greater pro-animal sentiments in response to the images.
For animal advocates, there are several fascinating takeaways from these studies. First, the fact that both distress and empathy worked to increase animal empathy suggests that both negative and positive emotions are important for influencing perceptions and attitudes. Those who practice advocacy through animal-meat reminders such as signs, social media posts, etc. may be encouraged to find out that these do indeed affect viewers’ ideas of meat.
For veg*ns, knowing that increased distress and empathy predict less antiveg*n attitudes might inform the way you explain your lifestyle to others, as well as the way you approach your meat-eating friends and family. Interestingly, some meat-eaters in the second study who reacted negatively to the meat actually showed greater antiveg*n attitudes. One possible reason for this is a “whiplash” of guilt – after being reminded of the animal harm that eating meat causes, which veg*ns do not participate in, they might feel morally inferior to veg*ns and respond with stronger negative sentiments. Coupling this with previous research that shows increased negative attitudes to veg*ns for moral reasons (versus veg*ans for health reasons) may help you navigate antiveg*n prejudice better.
For everyone, this research presents great insight into antiveg*n attitudes and attitudes towards animal suffering in general. Keeping these results in mind as we practice activism may help us be more successful in influencing others and producing greater change.