Why do so many people eat factory-farmed meat despite caring deeply about animal welfare? Through a series of self-deceptions, humans have disconnected meat from its living source
The ‘psychology of meat’ might strike you as a peculiar phrase. What can psychology tell us about sausages? What does the science of the human mind have to tell us about our appetite for chicken nuggets or lamb chops? Well, quite a lot, it turns out. Because when it comes to eating meat, it seems we often say one thing and do another.
When quizzed, most Brits say they care about animal welfare. We pride ourselves on being a nation of animal lovers. We donate generously to animal charities and abhor animal abuse. David Attenborough is our honorary patron saint.
And yet we so often opt not to fork out for higher welfare on our farms. For all our goodwill in one sense, it is intensively farmed, typically low-welfare poultry and pork that make up the bulk of the meat in our diets.
Of course, not everyone can afford to pay more. But it remains the case that a large proportion of the population could and yet, for one reason or another, often choose not to.
The choice matters. Meat becomes cheap because of ever more intensive farming practices. That’s bad for the environment, driving harm like excess waste pollution into Britain’s rivers and the destruction of valuable biodiversity. It’s bad for the climate due to issues like cattle’s oversized methane footprint or the demand for soy fuelling Amazon deforestation. And it’s bad for farmers, too, many of whom now face bankruptcy due to an inability to recover their costs of production. So why aren’t more of us willing to pay more?
In the past decade, a body of research has probed this very question, examining the cognitive and emotional tensions inherent in our relationship with meat and animal foods, asking why our behaviour so often diverges from our values. This research has been conducted under the banner of the ‘meat paradox’.
The issue, you might think, is simply that the average citizen is unaware of how their food is produced. Only a quarter of Brits for instance can correctly differentiate free-range and intensive poultry farming, according to a survey by the Animal Welfare Foundation.
There is also a limited understanding of the labels and certification schemes meant to communicate this kind of information. A third of those who recognise the Red Tractor logo believe it guarantees higher standards of welfare, a YouGov survey found last year – only a partial truth given the reality is it just means chickens must have 10% more space than the law requires.
But there’s an added layer of complexity. It is not only that we are often ignorant of the processes of meat production. We are wilfully ignorant. Psychologists have found that, when quizzed, many people explicitly say they do not want to know about animal farming practices, because they recognise that such information might make it more emotionally difficult to purchase and consume meat.
Even the most conscientious among us are prone to wilful ignorance. While most Brits say they care about welfare, 67% concede they dislike thinking about it when purchasing meat, a study published in Appetite, a leading peer-reviewed journal, found. Meanwhile, of those who consider welfare to be ‘highly important’, only about half actively think about it when buying animal foods in supermarkets or restaurants.
Our detachment feeds into processes of dissociation whereby we perceptually divorce meat from its animal origins. We fail to make the connection between the food in our mouth and the plight of a living being. The more highly processed a product is, the greater the dissociation that entails. We can absentmindedly chomp on a chicken nugget without once thinking of the bird that was butchered to provide it (and in the UK, the majority of meat is highly processed).
Dissociation is culturally contingent, but in the UK our use of language does appear to be important. One recent study published in Appetite found that replacing ‘beef’ or ‘pork’ on a restaurant menu with ‘cow’ or ‘pig’ elicited feelings of empathy and discomfort, an effect that was enhanced when pictures of the animal also featured. This in turn led to an increased appetite for vegetarian dishes.
Our capacity for dissociation is accentuated by a bias against certain animals. Put simply, the more ‘human-like’ an animal, the greater sense of moral value. We therefore empathise more readily with a four-limbed mammal than a bird or a fish. In another study published in Appetite, when participants were asked what they understood the word ‘meat’ to mean, it transpired that processed meat and white meats were hardly seen as ‘meat’ at all. They were more akin to plants.
In so many ways, we struggle to think straight and act consistently. Our concern for animal welfare is genuine, yet is compartmentalised and impinges only lightly upon our dietary behaviours. Our values are sincere, but exist largely in the abstract and can be muted when purchasing or ordering food.
Humans are also adept at self-deception, meaning in many cases we misreport our dietary behaviours. This is seen quite clearly among those who claim to be eating less meat, whether it be motivated by health, environmental, or welfare issues. Over the past decade, UK opinion polls have consistently found that one in three self-identify as veggie, vegan or meat-reducing flexitarian. But these figures are not robustly supported by sales or supply data. Household budget surveys published by Defra, for example, show just a 3% decline in meat purchases in the UK from 2008 to 2019, a clear discrepancy with the idea that one-in-three have adopted a little or no meat diet. We say we are eating less – perhaps because we feel that we should – but the reality is arguably rather different.
More than a dozen recent studies have found misreporting is rife. A survey of 10,000 Americans found 60% of self-described vegetarians had eaten meat or seafood within the previous 24 hours. Across several US studies, approximately 7% of people identified as vegetarian, yet when asked about their eating habits, only between 1% and 2.5% ate a vegetarian diet.
A similar picture is evident in the UK. Although 3% of British people claimed to be vegan in a 2019 YouGov survey, when Kantar actually tracked people’s food diaries for a week, it found only 0.6% were genuinely eating a vegan diet. As AHDB put it, this demonstrates “that for some, the vegan diet is more aspirational than achievable”.
The findings illustrate the degree to which our behaviours can become divorced from our self-image, and our susceptibility to subtle forms of self-deception. They help to explain how as ostensibly ‘animal loving’ consumers, we often act in less-than-ethical ways. We say one thing and do another. We identify as ‘ethical omnivores’ even as we dine on factory-farmed meat.
The modern consumer that emerges from all this is a complicated and sometimes contradictory creature. But while some of that is unique to Britain and similar countries, there is intriguing evidence that people in very different cultures also struggle to think straight about their animal foods.
One of the most curious parallels is found in the Barasana and Makuna people of the Colombian Amazon, documented by anthropologist Stephen Hugh-Jones in a 1996 paper called ‘Good Reasons or Bad Conscience’. Hugh-Jones documents his time with the tribes, highlighting that despite dizzying differences between our culture and theirs, there are evident parallels in how we manage the emotional tensions roused by meat. The Barasana and Makuna, he observes, perceive a moral hierarchy in the animals they consume. This mirrors the traditional European hierarchy in which large mammals are typically of most concern.
Through the craft of ‘food shamanism’, the tribes ritualistically lower their meat dishes down the moral hierarchy, imaginatively transforming mammal flesh into (they say) fish and birds, and ultimately plants, which are much less disturbing to consume.
So compelling is the effect that many members of the tribe describe themselves as vegetarians, despite frequently consuming the meat of large herbivores. Sound familiar?
Given this psychological complexity, shifting consumer behaviour to a more consistently ethical and sustainable footing, while motivating people to pay more for meat, poses a sizable challenge.
1 in 4
can differentiate free-range poultry from intensive
One fruitful response might be to address our deep-rooted detachment and dissociation. Imagine, for example, that all children were required to visit farms, both organic and industrial, and invited to speak to farmers. Imagine that food education in schools was expanded to address the ethical and ecological complexity of eating. Imagine that school meals were predominantly plant-based, but included locally sourced animal foods, and celebrated offal – the hearts, kidneys, livers, and gristly bits, that remind us that it’s really an animal we are eating. In Denmark, older children are invited to visit a slaughterhouse to witness the killing and processing of animal bodies.
Imagine also if a spotlight was truly shone on the role of the retailers in all of this. This might involve a look at mandatory labelling of production methods, beginning with pig and chicken. It could also include a ban on retailers’ use of ‘fake farm’ labels, which arguably portray a dishonestly bucolic vision of animal farming.
There is also a case to be made for a fairer trading environment based on coherent government policy that helps provide the stability farmers need to invest in environmental and welfare improvements.
These are all important and worthwhile measures, and readily achievable, but they only scratch the surface of the psychological complexity of meat. The challenge runs much deeper, cutting to the core of our collective and cultural identity.
Reorienting our diet might require a more fundamental shift in how we think and talk about animals. As the climate and nature crises escalate, our appetite for flesh, coupled with our capacity to avert our gaze from harm, poses nothing less than an existential threat.
Shifting how we think and eat might require that we establish new spaces for dialogue and democratic decision making. In keeping with the Citizens Assembly format pioneered for climate action, space could be created to help citizens grapple with the heftiest questions.
Should we be eating animals at all? Which animals should we consume? How many and under which conditions might it permissible? What scale of dietary change is needed to resolve the climate and nature crises? How can farmers and producers be supported and empowered to raise standards?
These are not questions that can, or even should, be answered by thinktanks or politicians. Citizen voice is needed. And it might be that new forms of dialogue and debate are needed if we are to align our behaviour more squarely with our values, unriddle the psychology of meat, and resolve the meat paradox.