Using Disgust To Dissuade Meat-Eaters
There are many arguments for the reduction or elimination of meat from our diets. Some of the most common are environmental, moral, and health-based. Meat is a significant contributor to climate change and habitat destruction. It has been linked with several major diseases, including heart disease and type II diabetes. What’s more, our growing understanding of animal intelligence has soured many people on the idea of killing them for food.
Still, most people happily eat burgers, chicken thighs, and fish sticks. If we can’t convince these individuals through logical arguments, could we simply gross them out? This study conducted three experiments to test this hypothesis, followed by a meta-analysis. All three experiments used between 300-400 American participants, recruited through Amazon’s MTurk system. The pool was roughly evenly split between male and female participants; no other demographic information was available.
In the first two studies, the participants had to read essays arguing against meat consumption based on morality, health, or disgust. In the second study, the “morality” argument was divided into two – one from the animal welfare aspect and one focusing on environmental degradation. Both also featured control essays about an unrelated subject. After reading the essays, participants were asked to rate meat and vegetables based on each foods’ morality, anticipated taste, health, buying likelihood, and desire to eat. The third study was similar, but used slideshows rather than essays. Animal welfare, health, and disgust were all used – environmental degradation was not.
Overall, animal welfare and disgust were the most convincing arguments against meat consumption. Arguments from environmentalism or health benefits were somewhat effective, but much less so.
People generally underestimate the damage of the animal agriculture industry, believing that eating local food or avoiding excessive packaging are more helpful steps. Health arguments have to overcome the general belief that vegetarian diets are critically lacking in protein, iron, and other nutrients. Animal welfare arguments decreased the participants’ attitudes towards meat, but did nothing to their attitude towards vegetables. However, arguments from disgust did both – people who were disgusted by meat became more likely to buy and eat vegetables, and more likely to believe them to taste good and be healthy.
The authors did raise some issues with their study. First, the only requirement for their participants was that they not be vegetarian or vegan. This leaves open the possibility for pescatarians and other omnivores who eat very little meat. In addition, their study used images of raw meat, rather than cooked food. It’s likely that raw meat will appear more disgusting to most people than cooked meat, and that may have affected the results. However, the authors note that meat is sold raw in supermarkets, so the results are not totally void.
For animal advocates, this research both opens up potentially new arguments against meat consumption and highlights areas where public knowledge is still lacking. Arguments using a disgust angle may be effective in some cases, but they are also largely subjective; what disgusts one person may leave another completely unfazed. They are not so much arguments as they are conclusions. Someone who is unaffected by videos of “pink slime” chicken or raw beef isn’t logically wrong, just wired differently. Arguments from morality or environmental degradation are based on something more concrete and objective. They have conclusions that are derived from premises that are bolstered by evidence.
If you want to challenge the conclusion, then you have to challenge one of the premises and bring your own evidence to do so. Still, it would not be wise for animal advocates to write off the value of arguments based on logical premises, even if this study has shown them to be slightly less effective.