What The Meat Paradox Tells Us About Human Psychology

 Li-i-i-sa, I thought you lov-v-v-ved me! LOV-V-V-V-V-VED ME! Image: Eric Gevaert/Shutterstock.com

The meat industry is, to put it bluntly, unfathomably cruel. Every day, billions of animals across the USA survive in horrific conditions: barely able to move, living in constant pain, and often never even glimpsing the outside world before they are herded, scared and struggling, to their slow, premature deaths.

As for those “ethically sourced” or “humane” labels – according to figures from the United States Department of Agriculture, only 1 percent of livestock animals in the country live outside of factory farms.

“I love animals,” a fair few of you may protest. “I’m not a bad person just because I eat meat!”

You wouldn’t be alone. The vast majority of us proclaim ourselves to be animal lovers: about nine-tenths of Americans believe animals deserve protection from harm and exploitation. A reasonable chunk of people go even further, saying animals deserve the exact same protections as humans. More than half of Americans live with pets; almost $1 of every 20 donated to non-religious organizations goes towards animal charities. Studies have even found that we empathize more with dogs than other humans.

And yet, the amount of meat being eaten – both in the US and around the world – has never been higher. Although the number of vegans has shot up over the last 15 years, they still only make up 2 to 6 percent of the American population.

How can so many of us claim to love animals while supporting their suffering?

That’s the meat paradox.

What is Behind the meat paradox?

This isn’t just a way to make meat-eaters feel guilty. The meat paradox is one manifestation of a kind of psychological conflict that each of us faces every day: cognitive dissonance.

“[It’s] the inconsistency between our belief that animals are cute, and we need to protect them and we probably shouldn’t torture them, and on the other hand, eating them and turning them into meat – and in the process, putting them in factory farms and torturing them in various ways,” psychological scientist Dr Julia Shaw told BrainCraft.

“Clearly those two beliefs are inconsistent with each other. And that’s what we call cognitive dissonance,” she explained. “[When] we hold two beliefs at the same time, and a paradox lies in the middle.”

To understand this phenomenon a bit better, it might help to go back to the beginning – which in this case is Stanford University in the late 1950s. There, intrigued by reports of strange behavior in India some years earlier, a social psychologist named Leon Festinger set out to prove something fundamental – and yet at the time, completely overlooked – about human nature.

“[There was] an especially severe [earth]quake in the province of Bihar, India, on January 15, 1934,” Festinger wrote in his seminal 1957 work A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. “The quake itself, a strong and prolonged one, was felt over a wide geographical area. Actual damage, however, was quite localized … people … felt the shock of the earthquake but … did not see any damage or destruction.”

You might expect that a lack of visible destruction would be reassuring to people who had just survived an earthquake – but you’d be wrong. People freaked out, and not just about the quake they’d just felt – rumors started circulating about numerous, supposedly imminent, disasters that were even worse.

These reactions, Festinger pointed out, “do not agree entirely with so-called common sense. After all, why should the occurrence of an earthquake impel people to spread and believe rumors which are frightening?”

The answer, he thought, was not that they were trying to scare people – it was that they were already scared. These rumors were “fear-justifying”: people were using the rumors of incoming catastrophes to subconsciously resolve an internal conflict between their feelings of fear and the lack of anything obvious to be afraid of.

Discovering Cognitive Dissonance

In 1959, with co-worker James Merrill Carlsmith, Festinger carried out what is now the classic demonstration of cognitive dissonance. In their now-famouspaper, the pair asked volunteers to perform two tedious tasks intended to incite negative opinion. The actual tasks themselves weren’t important – the real experiment was what came next. 

As the study participants left, they were given one more instruction: to tell the next subject that the tasks they had just wasted an hour of their life performing were “very enjoyable,” “intriguing,” or even “exciting.” In return for telling this bare-faced lie, they were given either $1$20or nothing at all. 

As you might have expected, those paid nothing rated the experiment boring, unenlightening, and unimportant. But what about the people who got paid?

Well, here’s where things get interesting. The group who were given $20 were pretty forthright about not enjoying the tasks, and in terms of scientific importance, they rated the experiments even lower than the control group.

The outliers were the group given just $1. These guys rated the tasks as more enjoyable than the other two groups, thought the experiments were more important, and were the only group who said they’d be up for doing the study again. What was going on?

Those paid $20 could justify their lie because they were paid for it, Shaw explained. “But if you only got paid $1 … that’s not enough to make you feel like that excuses lying.”

So you “change how you feel about the task,” she continued. “You instead think, ‘you know what, … I actually had a pretty good time.’”

Basically, the participants’ brains had been confronted with two conflicting, yet equally true, ideas: they hadn’t enjoyed themselves, but they had said that they had. One of those things had to change in order for the conflict to be resolved – and since you can’t un-say words, the only option was for the subjects’ opinions on the tasks to change.

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