What Do Farmers Do About Cognitive Dissonance?
Pig production is continuing to rise as a consequence of a growing demand. For pigs, this means more of them will be bred and housed in intensive factory farms where welfare issues are common. Examples include aggression-related injuries, lameness, hunger, inability to perform natural behaviours, and pain from tail-docking and other routine procedures. Farmers are directly responsible for the welfare of the animals under their care.
Bearing such a crucial responsibility, how do farmers cope with the conflict of enjoying the taste of meat, but condemning animal suffering, also known as the ‘meat paradox’? Such a conflict can result in an unpleasant feeling referred to as cognitive dissonance. To resolve this feeling, people either change their behaviours to align with their beliefs (e.g., eating plant-based foods), or change their beliefs. One example of a psychological defense mechanism is ascribing animals with a reduced capacity to suffer. Doing so lessens moral concerns and thereby allows people to eat animals without any discomfort.
Given that farmers are directly exposed to farmed animals, it is possible that they experience high levels of cognitive dissonance, but no study has investigated this. As such, researchers in this study examined whether farmers engage in such dissonance-reducing mechanisms. Specifically, they tested the hypothesis that pig farmers attribute diminished aversive states in pigs compared to other species and compared to people not affiliated with animal agriculture.
Four groups of participants were recruited in-person from the U.K. and Ireland for the study: pig farmers, pig veterinarians, undergraduate students studying animal science or agriculture, and members of the general public who were unrelated to agriculture. Once recruited, they filled out a questionnaire asking them about their beliefs of dogs, cats, pigs, and cows’ capacity to feel hunger, pain, fear, and boredom. Using a visual analogue scale, participants could choose to respond anywhere between “no, not at all” to “yes, in a very similar way to people.” While the pig farmers were typically older adult males, the control group of citizens with no agriculture experience was mainly older adult females. As such, sex and age were statistically accounted for in the analyses.
In contrast to the hypothesis, participants’ beliefs in the capacity of boredom, pain, and fear of different species did not vary by type of occupation. Furthermore, farmers assigned pigs a greater capacity to feel hunger than all other animals. As well, pig farmers did not ascribe animals with a lower capability to feel hunger than the control group, also rejecting the hypothesis. Further results showed that animal science students gave higher scores for hunger, pain, and fear than farmers and citizens unrelated to agriculture, and sometimes higher scores than agriculture students. Women also gave higher scores than men, but only for pain and boredom. Older participants were more likely to view all species as being less capable of hunger and boredom. Lastly, dogs tended to receive the highest scores for pain, fear, and boredom.
For animal welfare, these results are positive as it demonstrates that farmers do acknowledge that farmed animals can experience negative emotional states. Indeed, there have been concerns that welfare initiatives may be slower to implement on farms where staff don’t believe that animals can suffer. Fortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Nonetheless, one limitation of this study is that respondents may have been susceptible to social desirability bias, in which participants may have given scores that would make themselves, or their occupation, appear more favorable. Thus, future studies can try to replicate this finding, especially outside the U.K. and Ireland, where farming culture may differ.
For animal advocates, the takeaway message is that you shouldn’t try to convince pig farmers that the animals under their care suffer. Instead, advocates should demand companies and governments to require higher welfare standards. This is especially helpful in cases where farmers feel like they have limited resources to implement higher welfare.