Meat consumption has decreased by 17% in the UK over the past decade, with more and more people questioning the health, environmental and moral implications of eating meat. While some will be unrepentant about their taste for meat, others may find it more morally ambiguous, with big questions about how justifiable their diets really are.
A new study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, takes a closer look at how meat-eaters grapple with these quandaries. It finds that blaming third parties, holding them responsible for moral transgressions, can reduce the cognitive dissonance involved in eating meat.
In the first study, 310 American meat-eating participants were randomly assigned to read a newspaper article depicting the animal abuse prevalent in factory farming. The article described the lack of space, lack of fresh air, deprivation of natural behaviours and slaughter that occurs in factory farming. In one condition, participants read that the factory farms were based in the US, while in the other that the farms were in China.
After finishing the article, half of the participants in each group were able to express moral outrage at the factory farm owners and operators by agreeing or disagreeing with statements such as “knowing that animals are helpless against factory farming companies makes me angry on their behalf”. They then reported how guilty they felt about the treatment of these animals, and rated their own moral character, relative to other people, on a scale from one to five. The other half of participants proceeded to these measures without articulating any outrage.
For those who did not have the opportunity to express moral outrage, guilt was higher and ratings of their own moral character were lower when they read that their “in-group” — i.e. other Americans — were responsible for the factory farms. But for those who did express moral outrage, there was no difference in guilt or perceived moral standing whether they had read about American or Chinese factory farms, suggesting that blaming others can decrease feelings of responsibility and moral culpability. A second study replicated these findings.
In a third and final study, the team investigated whether highlighting the harms associated with eating meat would also encourage meat-eaters to express outrage towards other, unrelated acts of animal abuse. A total of 300 participants were once again assigned to one of two conditions. In order to provoke feelings of defensiveness around eating meat, those in the “meat threat” condition read an article detailing the harms meat eating inflicts on both the environment and the global poor. Those in the other condition did not read an article at this point.
Next, all participants read an article describing the abuse of dolphins in SeaWorld as well as viewing pictures of the abuse. Half of the participants were then asked to briefly describe something about themselves that made them feel like a good person, while the other half described their preference between Mac and Dell computers. Finally, participants reported their moral outrage towards SeaWorld.
Among those participants who had read the article provoking defensiveness, moral outrage towards SeaWorld was much lower if they subsequently affirmed themselves as a good person than if they did not complete the affirmation task. For those who hadn’t read the initial article, affirmation had no impact on expressed moral outrage.
So, overall, the results suggest that expressing outrage at factory farming or other animal abuses acts as a way to repair moral self-image. This could assuage people’s guilt about eating meat — but if guilt is mitigated in such a way, people may feel “even more emboldened to consume meat”, the authors suggest.
The team suggests that future research could focus on campaigns designed to “delegitimize the belief that voicing displeasure at one injustice grants moral capital to participate in others”. Used in conjunction with other interventions — harnessing disgust, to use one example — this could go some way to increasing the number of people cutting down on meat.