Psychology of eating meat
The psychology of eating meat is a complex area of study illustrating the confluence of morality, emotions, cognition, and personality characteristics. Research into the psychological and cultural factors of meat eating suggests correlations with masculinity; support for hierarchical values; and reduced openness to experience. Because meat eating is widely practiced but sometimes considered morally ambiguous, it has been used as a case study in moral psychology to illustrate theories of cognitive dissonance and moral disengagement. Research into the consumer psychology of meat is relevant both to meat industry marketing and to advocates of reduced meat consumption.
Meat is an important and highly preferred human food. Individuals' attitudes towards meat are of interest to consumer psychologists, to the meat industry, and to advocates of reduced meat consumption. These attitudes can be affected by issues of price, health, taste, and ethics. The perception of meat in relation to these issues affects meat consumption.
Meat is traditionally a high-status food. It may be associated with cultural traditions and has strong positive associations in most of the world. However, it sometimes has a negative image among consumers, partly due to its associations with slaughter, death, and blood. Holding these associations more strongly may decrease feelings of pleasure from eating meat and increase disgust, leading to lowered meat consumption. In the West, these effects have been found to be particularly true among young women. Negative associations may only cause consumers to make meat less noticeable in their diets rather than reducing or eliminating it, for example making meat an ingredient in a more-processed dish. It has been suggested that this is the result of a disconnect between individuals' roles as consumers and as citizens.
Implicit attitudes towards meat have been reported to vary significantly between omnivores and vegetarians, with omnivores holding much more positive views. Vegetarians may express either revulsion or nostalgia at the thought of eating meat.
Consumer behavior towards meat may be modeled by distinguishing the effects of intrinsic factors (properties of the physical product itself, such as color) and extrinsic factors (everything else, including price and brand).
Taste and texture are self-reported to be important factors in food choice, although this may not accurately reflect consumer behavior. Consumers describe meat as "chewy", "tender", and "rich". In the United Kingdom, meat is traditionally considered to taste good. People experience the taste and texture of meat in significantly different ways, with variations across ages, genders, and cultures. Tenderness is perhaps the most important of all factors impacting meat eating quality, with others being flavor, juiciness, and succulence.
Visual appearance is one of the primary cues consumers use to assess meat quality at the point of sale, and to select meats. Color is one of the most important characteristics in this context. Different cultural traditions lead consumers to prefer different colors: some countries prefer relatively dark pork overall, some light, and some have no clear preference.
Visible fat content and marbling are also important intrinsic quality cues. Consumers as a whole tend to prefer leaner beef and pork, although significant variations exist across geographical regions. Marbling is important to some consumers but not others, and, as for fat content more generally, preference for marbling varies by region.
Health concerns are also relevant to consumer choices about meat. The perceived risk of food contamination can affect consumer attitudes towards meat, as after meat-related scares such as those associated with mad cow disease or bird flu. Safety-related product recalls can impact demand for meat. People may reduce or eliminate meat from their diets for perceived health benefits. Because lean meat is an excellent source of healthy protein, but plant foods have other nutritional benefits, health considerations may motivate both meat-eaters and vegetarians. Meatless diets in adolescents can be a way to conceal eating disorders, although vegetarianism does not necessarily increase the risk of disordered eating.
Research suggests consumers tend to prefer meats whose origin lies in their own country over imported products, partly due to the fact that domestic meats are perceived to be of higher quality. This effect may also reflect consumers' ethnocentrism or patriotism. The importance of meat's country of origin varies from country to country.
Beliefs and attitudes about environmental and animal welfare concerns can affect meat consumption. Consumers in the developed world may be willing to pay slightly more for meat produced according to higher animal welfare standards, although welfare and environmental concerns are usually considered less important than attributes more directly related to meat quality, such as appearance. A 2001 study in Scotland found that, although participants cared about animal welfare in general, they considered price and appearance more important than welfare when buying meat. A study of Dutch consumers found that both rational and emotional responses to environmental and other concerns affected purchasing of organic meat.
Meat consumption patterns can also be influenced by individuals' family, friends, and traditions. A study of British eating patterns found that meat was associated with positive food traditions, such as the Sunday roast. Some consumers only purchase meat conforming with religious prescriptions, such as halal meat. These consumers' trust in quality assurance organizations, and individual relationships with meat providers, have been reported to significantly affect their purchasing behavior.
Recent trends in animal husbandry, such as biotechnology, factory farming, and breeding animals for faster growth, are expected to have a continuing effect on the evolution of consumer attitudes towards meat.
One question examined in the psychology of eating meat has been termed the meat paradox: how can individuals care about animals, but also eat them? Internal dissonance can be created if people's beliefs and emotions about animal treatment do not match their eating behavior, although it may not always be subjectively perceived as a conflict. This apparent conflict associated with a near-universal dietary practice provides a useful case study for investigating the ways people may change their moral thinking to minimize discomfort associated with ethical conflicts.
Recent studies in this area suggest that people can facilitate their practices of meat eating by attributing lower intelligence and capacity for suffering to meat animals, by thinking of these animals as more dissimilar to humans, by caring less about animal welfare and social inequality, and by dissociating meat products from the animals they come from.
Perceptions of meat animals
Ethical conflicts arise when eating animals if they are considered to have moral status. Perceptions of animals' moral status vary greatly, but are determined in part by perceptions of animals as having conscious minds and able to experience pain, and their perceived similarity to humans. Some social psychologists hypothesize that meat eaters can reduce discomfort associated with the meat paradox by minimizing their perception of these morally relevant qualities in animals, particularly animals they regard as food, and several recent studies provide support for this hypothesis.
A 2010 study randomly assigned college students to eat beef jerky or cashews, then judge the moral importance and cognitive abilities of a variety of animals. Compared with students who were given cashews, those who ate beef jerky expressed less moral concern for animals, and assigned cows a diminished ability to have mental states that entail the capacity to experience suffering.
Subsequent studies similarly found that people were more inclined to feel it was appropriate to kill animals for food when they perceived the animals as having diminished mental capacities, a finding replicated in samples from the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, and India; that, conversely, they perceived unfamiliar animals as having lesser mental capacities when told they were used as food; and, again, that eating meat caused participants to ascribe fewer mental abilities to animals over both the short and long term.
A 2014 review suggested that these phenomena could be explained as a set of dissonance reduction techniques used to reduce negative emotions associated with the meat paradox, but noted that the existence of such emotions had not been demonstrated. A 2016 review drew an analogy between work on the meat paradox and on sexual objectification, writing that both practices involve strategically changing perceptions of others when thinking of them as a potential "resources" (i.e., for meat or sex), and citing recent studies suggesting that sexually objectifying people prompts a reduction in their perceived humanness and moral importance.
Dissociation and avoidance
Several proposed strategies for resolving the meat paradox dissociate meat as a food product from the animals which produce it, or psychologically distance themselves from the processes of meat production.
A 2007 study found that consumers in three European countries did not usually think about animal suffering when buying meat, and did not like to think about the connection between meat and live animals. People in many cultures generally prefer to "de-animalize" meat, either to reduce feelings of guilt or of disgust. Although concern for animal welfare has recently increased in some countries, a trend towards dissociating meat from its animal origins has tended to prevent such concerns from influencing consumer behavior.
Some authors have suggested that the use of non-animal words such as "sirloin" and "hamburger" for meat can reduce the salience of meat's origins in animals, and in turn reduce perceived consumption of animals. Similarly, farmers and hunters use terms such as "processing" and "managing" rather than "killing", a choice which can be interpreted as a way to provide psychological distance and facilitate animal use. Meat in Western countries is often packaged and served so as to minimize its resemblance to live animals, without eyes, faces, or tails, and the market share of such products has increased in recent decades; however, meat in many other cultures is sold with these body parts. These processes of dissociation have been supported empirically by six comprehensive consumer experiments published recently.
In addition to psychological dissociation strategies, people who experience discomfort relating to the meat paradox may avoid confrontation of the issue in other ways. Cultural socialization mechanisms may discourage people from thinking of their food choices as harmful; for example, children's books and meat advertisements usually portray farm animals as leading happy lives, or even desiring to be eaten. Omnivores may reduce tension associated with the meat paradox by reducing the amount of meat they perceive themselves to eat. Individuals may call themselves "vegetarians" despite regularly eating meat.
Ethical conflicts between enjoying meat and caring for animals may be made less problematic by holding positive attitudes towards meat. People who think of meat as safe, nutritious, and sustainable tend to experience less ambivalence about eating it. Religious belief in God-given dominion over animals can also justify eating meat.
A series of studies published in 2015 asked meat-eating American and Australian undergraduates to "list three reasons why you think it is OK to eat meat." Over 90% of participants offered reasons which the researchers classified among the "four N's":
- Appeals to human evolution or to carnivory in nature ("natural")
- Appeals to societal or historical norms ("normal")
- Appeals to nutritive or environmental necessity ("necessary")
- Appeals to the tastiness of meat ("nice")
Those who value power more highly have been found in several studies to eat more meat, while those who prefer self-transcendence values tend to eat less. In particular, studies have found that the personality trait of openness to experience is negatively correlated with meat consumption, and that vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians have more open personalities.
Other research has indicated that meat consumption is correlated with support for hierarchy and inequality values. Those with a social dominance orientation, who more strongly support inequality and hierarchical structures, have been found in some studies to eat more meat; it has been suggested that this is consistent with their preference for having certain groups dominate others (in this case, having humans dominate animals). In addition, research suggests people self-identifying as greater meat eaters have greater right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Dhont & Hodson (2014) suggested that this subconsciously indicates their acceptance of cultural tradition, and their rejection of nonconformist animal rights movements.
Many of these personality characteristics have been shown to relate with moral disengagement in meat consumption. In particular, individuals with higher levels of moral disengagement in meat consumption also tend to show lower levels of general empathy, experience less self-evaluative emotional reactions (i.e. guilt and shame) when considering the impact of meat consumption, endorse group-based discrimination within humans (social dominance orientation), and display power motives of dominance and support of hierarchy of humans over other species (speciesism, human supremacy beliefs). Additionally, they also tend to display higher general propensity to morally disengage, attribute less importance to moral traits in how they view themselves (moral identity), and eat meat more often.
A detailed study of personality characteristics and diet in Americans characterized the self-descriptions of increased meat consumers as "pragmatic" and "business- and action-oriented", after correcting for gender differences.
The idea that "you are what you eat", related to superstitions about sympathetic magic and common in many cultures, may create the perception that eating meat confers animal-like personality attributes.
The participants in a series of 2012 studies rated mammalian muscle such as steak and hamburgers as more "male" than other foods, and responded more quickly in an implicit-association test when meat words were paired with typically male names than with female names. In a different study, perceptions of masculinity among a sample of American undergraduates were positively linked to beef consumption and negatively linked to vegetarianism. A 2011 Canadian study found that both omnivores and vegetarians perceived vegetarians as less masculine. A 2016 review found that male Germans eat more meat than females, linking the discrepancy to the finding that meat in Western culture has symbolic connections to strength and power, which are associated with male gender roles.
Studies have also examined meat eating in the context of attempts to manage others' impressions of the eater, finding that men whose masculinity had been challenged chose to eat more meat pizza instead of vegetable pizza.
These results indicate that it is possible for dietary choices to influence perceptions of the eater's masculinity or femininity, with meat strongly correlated with perceived masculinity. It has been suggested that meat consumption makes men feel more masculine, but it remains unclear whether this is the case and whether it is affected by social context.
Cultural associations between meat and masculinity are reflected in individuals' attitudes and choices. Across Western societies, women eat significantly less meat than men on average and are more likely to be vegetarian. Women are also more likely to adopt meatless diets for animal welfare reasons.
In the course of human evolution, the pressures associated with obtaining meat required early hominids to cooperate in hunting, and in distributing the spoils afterwards. In a 2003 paper, psychologist Matteo Marneli proposed that these pressures created the basic principles of human moral judgements: put simply, he argued, "meat made us moral."
Despite this hypothesis, several studies have found that both omnivores and vegetarians tend to consider vegetarians slightly more moral and virtuous than omnivores. Ethical principles are often cited among reasons to stop eating meat. Some evidence suggests meat-eaters may consider vegetarianism an implicit moral reproach, and respond defensively to vegetarian ideas.
A 2015 study found that Belgian omnivores, semi-vegetarians (flexitarians), and vegetarians have fundamentally different moral outlooks on animal welfare concerns. However, the three groups were found to donate equally to human-focused charities.
Other research has shown how moral disengagement operates in the deactivation of moral self-regulatory processes when considering the impact of meat consumption. In particular, a 2016 study offered an interpretation of moral disengagement as a motivated reasoning process which is triggered by loss aversion and dissonance avoidance.
Moral perspectives can have a strong influence on meat consumption, but are not uniform across cultures. In the West, choices about meat eating are known to be associated with moral concerns about animal welfare. In contrast, the psychology of diet in non-Western cultures has been poorly studied, even though important variations exist from region to region; for example, approximately one third of Indians are vegetarian. Research has indicated that, relative to Western vegetarians, Indian vegetarians are more likely to endorse the moral values of purity, legitimate authority, and respect for ingroup and tradition.
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