The psychology behind eating meat

Beef cattle

Photo by Flickr user UGA College of Ag, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Yesterday, HuffPost ran a fascinating piece from Wray Herbert on the mental underpinnings of meat eating. As he describes,

The average American consumes more than 250 pounds of meat a year, an appetite fed by the slaughter of 10 billion animals. Yet we spend a fortune on our pets, too. The fact is that we both care for animals and eat them. How do we manage the psychological tension created by these seemingly conflicting values?

Psychological scientist Steve Loughnan of the University of Melbourne calls this the “meat paradox.” He and his colleagues have been working for years to understand the psychological gymnastics we use to resolve and live with this moral dilemma….

They’ve found some intriguing and consistent differences between meat eaters and vegetarians. For example, meat eaters tend to be more authoritarian in general, believing that it is acceptable to be aggressive and controlling with subordinates. Meat eaters are also more likely to accept inequality and to embrace social hierarchies. Apparently these attitudes — toward other humans — make meat eating less morally problematic. Interestingly, omnivores who value inequality and hierarchy also eat more red meat than do their less dominant peers. Meat eating is also closely linked to male identity — indeed, so closely that meat is often seen as metaphorically male.

Herbert goes on to describe some experimental results that further untangle how our brains make sense of the rightness or wrongness of eating animals. His conclusion is a powerful one:

Readers will recognize these findings as consistent with the theory of cognitive dissonance. When behavior is a poor match with beliefs and values, something’s got to give. Vegetarians change their behavior. But the rest of us — nine out of 10 — ease the discomfort by altering our beliefs — about animals’ minds, suffering, and moral standing.

The full piece is well-worth a read. Check it out here.

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