Ask most people why they eat meat and they’ll probably talk about flavor or nutritional value. However, psychological research indicates there is another motivation, one that is usually subconscious. Meat is a status symbol, and is valued more by those who resent their perceived low status.
In agricultural societies, meat has generally been rare and expensive. Kings and wealthy merchants could afford to eat it, but peasants would be lucky to taste it more than a few times a year. So the current situation, where people of lower socioeconomic status (SES) consume more meat in Europe than those with higher incomes is an anomaly.
The price gap may not be as large as in medieval times, but meat is still often more expensive than alternatives, so Dr Eugene Chan from Monash University and Dr Natalina Zlatevska of the University of Technology, Sydney, investigated what might cause people with less money to choose the more expensive option.
In the journal Appetite Chan and Zlatevska report they were able to manipulate university students’ desire for meat by changing their subjective SES.
Chan told IFLScience people can be made to see themselves, at least briefly, as either lower or higher SES quite easily. “We asked some participants to imagine earning AUS$50,000 (US$35,000) in their first job, and to think about what that could buy them,” Chan said. Others in the study were invited to think about what they couldn’t afford on that income. Both groups were then asked questions to establish how they perceived their status in society, and whether they were envious of those with more material wealth.
Participants were then offered a meal, and their choice of food observed. Those who had described feeling low on the SES scale, and most strongly expressed status anxiety, were more likely to choose meat burgers over vegetarian options.
“There is a symbolic association between eating meat and strength, power and masculinity," Zlatevska said in a statement. "It is traditionally a high-status food, brought out for guests or as the centrepiece of festive occasions, so we wanted to better understand this link to status.”
Chan attributed the association to historical influences. “If you go back far enough in time people who ate meat were more powerful than those who could not afford meat, and it became endowed with social status,” he told IFLScience. Chan acknowledged that with vegetarian and low-meat diets being more common among celebrities than the general public, the perception could eventually reverse.
Chan advised environmentalists, animal rights advocates, and doctors who want to promote less meat eating to make people feel like they have more status when making their food decisions. Of course, the meat industry may push in the opposite direction.