Wait, You Don’t Eat Meat?: Vegetarianism As A Social Identity
Social identity is how a person sees themselves based on the groups they belong to. For example, someone could identify as a vegetarian, a fan of their city’s sports team, and an accountant. To see how our social identity shapes our lives, we must first understand Social Identity Theory, which makes three claims:
- People make assumptions about others based on their social identities
- People tend to believe that the groups they belong to are better than and more diverse than other groups
- People that belong to the same group tend to share similar ideas, opinions, knowledge, and beliefs
In this literature review, researchers looked at nearly 50 different research papers with the goal of better understanding how vegetarianism acts as a social identity. What they found was that there are three main differences between vegetarians and omnivores: vegetarians tend to be more selfless, more liberal, and less mentally healthy.
In their review, the authors noted that the emotional center of vegetarians’ brains tended to be more active than in omnivores’ brains when shown pictures of human and animal suffering. That means that vegetarians are, in general, more empathetic than omnivores. Consistent with that finding, a poll they reviewed found that vegetarians donate to protect the environment, promote equality, and promote social justice more often than omnivores do. They were also more likely to work full-time for charitable organizations, local government, and in education. Furthermore, the review found that vegetarians also tended to be more liberal than omnivores. An analysis of recent voting records found that vegetarians were more likely to vote for environmental protection, equality, and social justice measures. They were also more likely to oppose a strong social hierarchy, authoritarianism, capital punishment, and violence. In comparison, omnivores were more likely to identify themselves as conservative Republicans, and were more authoritarian.
You might guess that vegetarians were happier than omnivores due to their empathetic nature and liberal tendencies, but vegetarians were found to be more neurotic, depressed, and anxious than omnivores. They also reported lower self-esteem, less psychological adjustment, worse moods, and less of a sense of meaning in life.
There are two main theories the authors outline about why this might be the case. The first theory is that vegetarians were unhappier because they’re a social minority, only composing about 5% of the U.S. population. Social minorities often face social rejection and alienation from the social majority, and vegetarians are no exception. Omnivores often associate vegetarians with negative terms, assume that they see themselves as morally superior, and respect them less. The second theory is that vegetarians were less happy as a direct result of their strong empathy. Recent studies have proven the common-sense idea that the more concerned you are about a problem, the less happy you are when the problem gets worse. That means that because vegetarians were more concerned about things like social inequality and environmentalism, two issues that are getting worse, they were less happy overall.
Interestingly, the authors found that, across various studies, the assumptions omnivores make about vegetarians are not the same assumptions they make for everyone that follows a plant-based diet. Omnivores viewed vegetarians differently depending on the reasons behind their diet and whether or not they ate other animal products. Omnivores often like vegetarians that avoid meat for health reasons more than they like those who became vegetarian for environmental reasons. This may be why environmentally motivated vegetarians are more aware of the stigma around vegetarianism. The review also found that environmentally-motivated vegetarians had lower self-esteem, were less likely to bring up the fact that they’re vegetarian unprompted, and disliked omnivores more than health-motivated vegetarians do.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the review found vegans and omnivores have a more strained relationship than vegetarians and omnivores do. Omnivores disliked vegans more than they disliked vegetarians, resulting in vegans feeling more stigmatized. In return, vegans disliked omnivores more than vegetarians did, and have a lower opinion of vegetarians than of other vegans.
Why does this matter to advocates? Understanding vegetarianism as an identity can help advocates be more effective in two main ways. First, by being aware of the negative stereotypes around vegetarianism, advocates can make more impactful arguments by avoiding them. For example, if omnivores see vegetarians as self-righteous, then they’d be more persuaded by a genuine conversation than a lecture. Second, by considering the differences between vegetarians’ and omnivores’ social identities, vegetarians can choose arguments that bridge the gap between the two. For example, omnivores tend to be more conservative, so an effective argument might be that eating meat costs the government millions in healthcare, or that it’s the consumer’s job to be informed on the companies they support. Regardless of what cause you fight for, understanding both your identity and the identity of others is a powerful tool for effective advocacy.