The Psychology of Eating Meat

There’s often some cognitive dissonance involved in the act of eating meat. On one hand, you might like animals and not want any of them to suffer. On the other hand, you might really enjoy eating them.

So how do people deal with these conflicting emotions? Some people stop eating meat, of course, but many don’t. One theory is that people try to dissociate the idea of “meat” from the idea of “animals,” which is why we prefer to talk about eating “beef” rather than chowing down on “dead cow.”

Recently, researchers in Norway and Denmark tested this hypothesis with a series of five experiments looking at whether the way we frame meat eating matters. Specifically, the studies looked at how different ways of talking about and presenting meat influence people’s empathy, disgust, and willingness to eat meat.

The first experiments they did looked at whether the way meat was prepared affected diners’ reactions. The theory was that some ways of preparing meat would remind people of the connection between “meat” and “animals” more than others.

Study 1 showed that people felt more empathy for a slaughtered animal when presented with unprocessed meat vs. processed meat. Study 2 found that a roasted pig caused more disgust and feelings of empathy when the head was present than when it was absent. The same study also showed that people were more likely to consider an alternative vegetarian dish when the head was present.

The researchers then looked at whether reminding people of the connection between “meat” and “animals” using pictures and words would similarly influence empathy and disgust.

In Study 3, people felt more empathy for slaughtered animals and less willingness to eat meat when a meat advertisement contained an image of a living animal. This result suggests that external cues, not just the way meat is prepared, can break down the psychological divisions people build between “meat” and “animals.”

Likewise, Study 4 found that describing meat production as “harvesting” rather than “killing” or “slaughtering” reduced empathy for the animals. This one surprised me a little – maybe I’m an outlier, but “harvesting” seems creepily euphemistic rather than just calling it what it is.

Study 5 reinforced the idea that words are part of the way we dissociate “meat” from “animals.” In this experiment, replacing “meat/pork” on a menu with “cow/pig” elicited more disgust and empathy from diners and made them more willing to try a vegetarian dish instead.

Across all experiments, researchers measured dissociation and found that it seemed to be a driving force behind the results. Moreover, the people for whom the effects of the experiments were the largest tended to be the people who cared most about dissociating “meat” and “animals” in their day-to-day lives.

Overall, the studies showed that dissociation appears to be an important part of the psychology of eating meat. It’s possible that the findings could lead to new ways of looking at other ethical questions, since dissociation can be a way of handling any ethical dilemma, not just eating meat.

In the meantime, hopefully all that science didn’t ruin your appetite. Go and enjoy some “cow/pig”!