The Meat Paradox: What It Tells Us About Human Psychology

The meat industry is, to put it bluntly, unfathomably cruel. Every day, billions of animals across the USA survive in horrific conditions: barely able to move, living in constant pain, and often never even glimpsing the outside world before they are herded, scared and struggling, to their slow, premature deaths.

As for those “ethically sourced” or “humane” labels – according to figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, only 1 percent of livestock animals in the country live outside of factory farms.

“I love animals,” a fair few of you may protest. “I’m not a bad person just because I eat meat!”

You wouldn’t be alone. The vast majority of us proclaim ourselves to be animal lovers: about nine-tenths of Americans believe animals deserve protection from harm and exploitation. A reasonable chunk of people go even further, saying animals deserve the exact same protections as humans. More than half of Americans live with pets; almost $1 of every 20 donated to non-religious organizations goes towards animal charities. Studies have even found that we empathize more with dogs than other humans.

And yet, the amount of meat being eaten – both in the US and around the world – has never been higher. Although the number of vegans has shot up over the last 15 years, they still only make up 2 to 6 percent of the American population.

How can so many of us claim to love animals while supporting their suffering?

That’s the meat paradox.

What is behind the meat paradox?

This isn’t just a way to make meat-eaters feel guilty. The meat paradox is one manifestation of a kind of psychological conflict that each of us faces every day: cognitive dissonance.

“[It’s] the inconsistency between our belief that animals are cute, and we need to protect them and we probably shouldn’t torture them, and on the other hand, eating them and turning them into meat – and in the process, putting them in factory farms and torturing them in various ways,” psychological scientist Dr Julia Shaw told BrainCraft.

“Clearly those two beliefs are inconsistent with each other. And that’s what we call cognitive dissonance,” she explained. “[When] we hold two beliefs at the same time, and a paradox lies in the middle.”

To understand this phenomenon a bit better, it might help to go back to the beginning – which in this case is Stanford University in the late 1950s. There, intrigued by reports of strange behavior in India some years earlier, a social psychologist named Leon Festinger set out to prove something fundamental – and yet at the time, completely overlooked – about human nature.

“[There was] an especially severe [earth]quake in the province of Bihar, India, on January 15, 1934,” Festinger wrote in his seminal 1957 work A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. “The quake itself, a strong and prolonged one, was felt over a wide geographical area. Actual damage, however, was quite localized … people … felt the shock of the earthquake but … did not see any damage or destruction.”

You might expect that a lack of visible destruction would be reassuring to people who had just survived an earthquake – but you’d be wrong. People freaked out, and not just about the quake they’d just felt – rumors started circulating about numerous, supposedly imminent, disasters that were even worse.

These reactions, Festinger pointed out, “do not agree entirely with so-called common sense. After all, why should the occurrence of an earthquake impel people to spread and believe rumors which are frightening?”

The answer, he thought, was not that they were trying to scare people – it was that they were already scared. These rumors were “fear-justifying”: people were using the rumors of incoming catastrophes to subconsciously resolve an internal conflict between their feelings of fear and the lack of anything obvious to be afraid of.

Discovering cognitive dissonance

In 1959, with co-worker James Merrill Carlsmith, Festinger carried out what is now the classic demonstration of cognitive dissonance. In their now-famouspaper, the pair asked volunteers to perform two tedious tasks intended to incite negative opinion. The actual tasks themselves weren’t important – the real experiment was what came next. 

As the study participants left, they were given one more instruction: to tell the next subject that the tasks they had just wasted an hour of their life performing were “very enjoyable,” “intriguing,” or even “exciting.” In return for telling this bare-faced lie, they were given either $1$20or nothing at all. 

As you might have expected, those paid nothing rated the experiment boring, unenlightening, and unimportant. But what about the people who got paid?

Well, here’s where things get interesting. The group who were given $20 were pretty forthright about not enjoying the tasks, and in terms of scientific importance, they rated the experiments even lower than the control group.

The outliers were the group given just $1. These guys rated the tasks as more enjoyable than the other two groups, thought the experiments were more important, and were the only group who said they’d be up for doing the study again. What was going on?

Those paid $20 could justify their lie because they were paid for it, Shaw explained. “But if you only got paid $1 … that’s not enough to make you feel like that excuses lying.”

So you “change how you feel about the task,” she continued. “You instead think, ‘you know what, … I actually had a pretty good time.’”

Basically, the participants’ brains had been confronted with two conflicting, yet equally true, ideas: they hadn’t enjoyed themselves, but they had said that they had. One of those things had to change in order for the conflict to be resolved – and since you can’t un-say words, the only option was for the subjects’ opinions on the tasks to change.

The meat paradox

Once you understand cognitive dissonance, a whole lot of apparently “normal” behavior starts to look a bit … well, suspect.

Society, according to researchers Brock Bastian and Steve Loughnan, is “shaped by attempts to resolve dissonance” and let “morally troublesome behaviors vanish into the commonplace and every day.”

Take the meat paradox. If you think of yourself as an animal lover, it can be upsetting to be reminded that little piglets suffered and died for that BLT in your hand. How do we deal with this?

The answer is clear – just go to any supermarket to find it.

“The presentation of meat by the industry influences our willingness to eat it. Our appetite is affected both by what we call the dish we eat and how the meat is presented to us,” explained Jonas Kunst, co-author of a 2016 paper dealing with the meat paradox. “Highly processed meat makes it easier to distance oneself from the idea that it comes from an animal … People thought less about it being an animal, they felt less empathy and disgust, and they were less willing to consider a vegetarian alternative.”

Basically, to resolve the dissonance between “I love animals” and “I love meat,” we have two choices: either decide we don’t like animals all that much, really, or give up meat. For most of us, neither seems very appealing, so we go for option three: pretend the two ideas have no connection to each other.

“Reminding people of the animal origins of their meat … can just be very triggering, because people tend to, for example, when they eat meat, forget about the animal’s existence, to forget that the meat comes from the animals,” Sarah Gradidge, first author of a recent review paper on the meat paradox, told Technology Networks. According to her, people tend to reach for a handful of strategies to help them cope with their cognitive dissonance from eating meat: they may reclassify some animals as “food” animals, which are somehow less able to think, feel, or understand (that’s not true, by the way), or else use “the four Ns” – saying that meat is nice, normal, necessary, or natural.

“As soon as you remind people that meat comes from animals, this can really trigger that discomfort, because it basically stops their ability to dissociate,” Gradidge said. “It reminds them of where [the meat] is coming from.”

But the meat paradox isn’t just about meat. There are all kinds of examples where we engage in this kind of doublethink to let ourselves get away with a morally questionable decision. We worry about the environment, for example, but we continue to use air travel and buy cars because we like holidays and don’t like walking for hours. We “think that it’s not OK to underpay people or to put people in really dangerous working conditions,” Shaw pointed out, “yet we show up at cheap shops and we buy things that are really cheap just because of the price tag.”

Can we overcome cognitive dissonance?

It might seem hard to draw any conclusion from the meat paradox that isn’t a searing indictment of humanity. After all, as psychologist Steve Loughnan pointed out, “people could change their behavior … [but] most people are unwilling to deny themselves the enjoyment of eating meat, and denying animals moral rights lets them keep eating with a clear conscience.”

But cognitive dissonance – and our ability to overcome it – doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In Princeton, researchers have found a way to use cognitive dissonance to encourage mask-wearing and social distancing, thus helping slow the spread of COVID-19. Over in Houston, the phenomenon is being used to stop college kids from binge drinking, and researchers in New York think it might help online addicts reduce their internet usage.

“It’s very uncomfortable to have inconsistency in your values and your behavior,” explained Professor Clayton Neighbors, the researcher behind the Houston study. “If you create discrepancies within people it will motivate them to change, at least theoretically.”

And if you don’t want to change – well, at least be honest with yourself, says Shaw.

“Meat is one good example where there’s lots of excuses,” she said. “We’re constantly telling ourselves a story that it’s okay … because everybody else is doing it, because there’s this industry and it’s not our problem.”

“We [should] at least accept that we’re being hypocritical,” she added. “Don’t get angry … when someone challenges us and says there are problems with that behavior. Instead … reflect on it, and if it isn’t consistent, then ideally we do change our behavior … we stop, for instance, eating as many animal products, we stop polluting the planet like crazy, and we stop buying cheap clothes just because of the price tag.”

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.  

An earlier version of this article was published in December 2021.

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