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The Meat Paradox Explained

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

Why is it that we claim to be a nation of animal lovers, yet continue to consume them? The Meat Paradox holds the answer, according to the latest study.

A structured literature review of the Meat Paradox, conducted by Sarah Gradidge, explains the complicated mechanisms that the human brain uses to avoid the cognitive discomfort felt when our actions do not align with our beliefs.

The meat paradox is a term used by psychologists to explain why people may emphasise their concern for animal welfare, yet continue to eat meat.

This inconsistency between the belief that we care for the welfare of animals and the conflicting action of eating them, is known as Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a term coined by the American psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957 to describe the discomfort we feel when we are made aware that our actions do not align with our values, especially if the conflict threatens our belief that we are kind or ethical.

When we become aware of this, our brain works to ease any discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance, and in the Meat Paradox, it does this using one of two methods - Engagement or Disengagement. Engagement acts to fully resolve the cognitive dissonance problem, whilst disengagement simply masks the issue in order to reduce cognitive discomfort.

Engagement alleviates cognitive discomfort by addressing the problem head-on. By changing our action (in this case eating animals), to align with our belief (not wanting to cause any harm to animals), the dissonance is completely resolved, discarding any cognitive discomfort.

Disengagement on the other hand works in one of two ways. Either we are simply unaware of meat's harmful consequences and therefore indirectly disengage from the issue, or we understand the issue but attempt to justify our action - in other words, we directly disengage.

Clever marketing and creative linguistics work tirelessly to detach any negative connotation we humans have between animals and our food, and so most of us are brought up indirectly disengaged, blissfully unaware of the consequences of our food choices.

However if at some point we learn the consequences of our food choices, but wish to continue eating animal products nonetheless, our brain directly disengages from the issue by justifying the action.

Direct Disengagement appears in two forms - The Denial Method or The Four N's Method and understanding these mechanisms could help shape future conversations surrounding veganism.

The Denial Method attempts to alleviate cognitive discomfort by denying animals of the following qualities:

  • Intelligence - Claims animals are not intelligent and do not understand what is happening to them.

  • Pain - The claim that animals are unable to feel pain.

  • Sentience - Claims that animals are not sentient (do not have the capacity to experience feelings and sensations).

  • Status - The claim that animals are low in hierarchical status.

The Four N's Method attempts to use the following arguments; Normal, Natural, Necessary and Nice to justify the action.

1. Normal - 'Everybody's doing it so it must be okay'.

The consumption of animal products has become normalised in modern culture, but does the normalisation of an action make it instinctively moral? Homosexuality is still illegal in several countries and the action of incarceration or even death of the accused is considered normal in those cultures. Does this make the action moral? The same can be said for the consumption of dogs - In some locations this is commonplace, yet western culture deems this abhorrent, so it's clear that morality isn't defined by cultural normalities.

2. Natural - 'Eating animals is a natural part of the food chain'. We have long passed the stage in which humans can classify animal products as part of the 'natural food chain'. Humans have created intervention methods to breed farm animals en mass (for example artificial insemination and selective breeding), but these systems actively damage the earth's ecosystems and resemble nothing of that in the natural world. On the contrary, food chains in the natural world play a pivotal role in balancing these ecosystems.

3. Necessary - 'We need to eat animals to survive'. Most people consider animal products to be an important part of the human diet. Whether it's calcium from milk or omegas from fish, we're taught from a young age that animal products are necessary. However, both the American and British dietetic associations, two of the world's most respected institutions in diet and nutrition, refute this, stating that a plant-based diet is fit for all stages of life, including pregnancy, and that animal products can even be the cause of inflammation and certain cancers.

4. Nice - 'I know animals suffer but I like the taste'. The final justification within the four N's is the claim that animal products taste 'nice'. The justification here is that the sensory pleasure of taste alone justifies the action of taking an animal's life. But does this stand up with other sensations? If for example, we loved the sound of hearing dogs being tortured, could we morally justify the action of causing them pain? Choosing taste over the entire life of an animal isn't a morally justifiable action.

Visualising the Meat Paradox:

Understanding the meat paradox helps us recognise human behavioural patterns meaning we are better equipped in tailoring conversations with meat-eating individuals. In addition to the former, and perhaps more importantly, this information could help psychologists, policymakers and activists establish new methods for shaping a future where neither animals nor our planet are needlessly harmed for human enjoyment.


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