Psychology on a plate: Do meat eaters experience emotional discomfort?


In the context of eating meat, it seems natural to hear about the unpleasant feelings felt by vegans or vegetarians and certain emotions that arise. However, meat eaters are no exception. Feelings of discomfort when eating meat can also visit them. This manifests itself in the "meat paradox", which we will discuss in this article.

What is the "meat paradox"?

Cognitive dissonance is a state of psychological or emotional discomfort that a person feels when his behavior does not match his values or beliefs. This state also occurs when a person has 2 different points of view at the same time. An example of cognitive dissonance would be when a person likes a meat dish, such as a juicy roast beef, but feels guilty about eating it because they realize the short and cruel lives of farm animals. Thus, the discrepancy between a person's behavior and his attitude causes discomfort.

Scientists have named this cognitive dissonance, which is increasingly noticeable in society, when tension is felt over eating meat, the "meat paradox". It is used to describe the emotional discomfort experienced by omnivores when eating meat and realizing the cost. In addition, people use various coping strategies to reduce perceived stress, which may be specific to a certain region of the world and only to a certain culture.

Different cultures have different meat eating habits

Far-flung Australia stands out as one of the largest meat-consuming countries in the world, trailing only Peru, Malaysia and the USA. For example, in 2021 one Australian ate over 44 kg of meat from chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and other birds. A deeper look at the country's prevailing culture can help to understand the origin of such statistics: since the country's colonization, meat consumption has been associated with social status. In later times, meat came to be associated with strength, muscularity, and what was considered a recommended diet. It is no secret that these days Australian meat consumption is encouraged by such factors as entrenched eating habits, lobbying by meat industry, active marketing (for example, loud advertisements of well-known food restaurants or the meat industry) and the improved economic situation of the population, when meat is no longer a luxury item.

However, according to statistics, eating habits in Australia are changing: meat consumption, although still one of the highest, is decreasing. It is predicted that over 10 years (2019-2029), one Australian will eat 1.5 kg less beef and cow meat.

The Australian picture is pretty clear, but how does the meat paradox manifest itself in a completely different culture? In India, which is often associated with a vegetarian diet, last year one person ate almost 3 kg of bird meat. According to statistics, this is one of the lowest amounts of meat consumed. This is probably due to the predominance of religion and caste in the country. For example, one of the castes, Bragmin, teaches what is acceptable and unacceptable in Indian culture, including vegetarianism.

However, it should be noted that in recent years there has been a noticeable increase in the country increasing consumption of meat. This can be explained by the growth of the middle class of the population - the number of people who can afford meat products is increasing. In addition, increasing urbanization in India is contributing to the dissonance - urban dwellers have a slightly broader worldview than those living outside the city. As the population of the city increases, so do the number of people who are open to innovation and choose meat, when the rest of the population wants to maintain vegetarian traditions. Thus, new worldviews and long-standing traditions collide, creating conditions for dissonance.

Strategies for reducing the "meat paradox".

As mentioned earlier, meat eaters also feel psychological discomfort with animal suffering. To reduce perceived dissonance, people usually change their behavior or attitude towards a certain factor. These strategies were also reflected in the researchers' analysis of overcoming the "meat paradox" felt by Australians and Indians. In the study conducted they found that people:

  • separates the animal and the meat as a product; they are not aligned (distancing). This means that a calf grazing in a meadow is not perceived as a kilogram of mincemeat bought in a supermarket.
  • one species of animal is considered more suitable for eating than others (eng. carnism). For example, certain animals are divided into edible and non-edible (cows are eaten in Australia but not in India), babies are not eaten because they are too cute (eating cute animals increases cognitive dissonance).
  • criticizes alternative diets. In Australia, for example, there is a widespread view that non-meat eaters are depriving themselves of the necessary nutrients, and the inclusion of meat in the diet is equated with a balanced diet.
  • avoids images related to the death of animals. In India, for example, people buy meat at food markets where the buyer can see the animal being slaughtered and sold as a "product". Some buyers choose not to see the killing process and, having ordered the desired "product", return to the seller after the process is over.
  • changes their behavior: in the best case, they partially or completely give up meat, but less drastic changes are also possible. For example, adjusting the prevailing tradition: cutting a goat cake instead of cutting a goat at the sacrificial festival, thus avoiding unpleasant images and reducing the feeling of guilt.

It is worth noting that in order to reduce the unpleasant feelings arising from eating meat, other thinking strategies are also used. For example, Australians take the view that supporting local farmers is particularly important. So we get a vicious circle where: eating meat = supporting farmers = growing farms = increasing number of farm animals. Another strategy is to transfer individual responsibility to the group. For example, a part of the population, although they understand the problem of too many people on the earth and food consumption, but in this context they perceive themselves as a "drop in the sea" and blame industrialization and the meat industry, because how can the behavior of one person contribute to this problem?

There is no way out

Man is a comfort-loving creature. So, what can be done to stop suffering from emotional discomfort and to feel peace when looking at a plate of food?
As already presented, the application of various cognitive dissonance strategies changes the existing attitude and reduces the discomfort felt. However, an equally effective way of overcoming the "meat paradox" is to change behavior.

One example is to try to look into scientific works, statistics about the damage caused by the meat industry to the environment and animals, and delve into the benefits and importance of a plant-based diet. Another is to try to reduce meat consumption a bit (perhaps leaving one meat meal a day instead of several, perhaps dedicating one day a week to a plant-based diet or trying a plant-based menu in a restaurant). It is also possible to experiment in the kitchen by cooking plant-based dishes and thus discover new tastes and try various meat alternatives that allow you to enjoy the taste of meat without feeling emotional discomfort.


The text was prepared by Kotryna Sipavičiūtė



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