What The Cheese Paradox Reveals About Vegetarians’ Moral Decision Making

There’s a psychological reason ethical vegetarians are still able to eat animal products.


Charlie Haigh


Charlie Haigh

Social Media and Marketing Assistant

Charlie is the social media and marketing assistant for IFLScience, she’s currently completing a undergraduate degree in Forensic Psychology.

Social Media and Marketing Assistant

Fresh dairy products, milk, cottage cheese, eggs, yogurt, sour cream and butter on wooden table

"How could you say no to all that delicious cheese?" - my cognitive dissonance.

Image credit: Goskova Tatiana / Shutterstock

While the meat paradox explains how people are able to be both animal lovers and meat eaters, the cheese paradox outlines a complex process of cognitive dissonance that allows those who practice ethical vegetarianism to still consume animal products sourced through wholly unethical means.

Inspired by the meat paradox, a new study by researchers in the UK investigated the effects of cognitive dissonance in ethical vegetarians, and in turn, aims to apply the findings to better encourage the public away from the consumption of non-meat animal products (NMAP).


What is cognitive dissonance?

A concept first developed by Leon Festinger in 1957, cognitive dissonance refers to the experience of holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. Festinger’s book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance describes ideas as being either consonant, flowing logically into one another, or dissonant, where ideas oppose each other.

The meat paradox is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance – some people are able to both simultaneously love animals and love eating meat, despite the two ideas being in complete contradiction of one another.

Experiencing dissonance can lead to feelings of discomfort and stress, especially if the held beliefs are important to the individual, and can even work to change a person’s perspective of their own thoughts and feelings.

Dissonance is managed in three ways:

  • Changing values – “I don’t actually like animals that much.”
  • Changing behavior – “I will stop eating meat.” 
  • Obscuring the behavior-value contradiction – “It’s natural to eat meat, I need it to be healthy.”

The four Ns of justification for eating meat (and NDAPs) are that the food is Nice, Normal, Necessary, and Natural. This justification works as part of the cognitive dissonance that allows people to continue the behavior.

The cheese paradox

Much like the meat paradox, the cheese paradox considers the ethical implication of obtaining NMAPs, and how those who are vegetarian can manage to justify consuming those products despite being aware of the suffering the industry causes.

Looking specifically at interview data conducted on participants who have identified as vegetarian for longer than six months, the study focused on the practice of consuming chicken eggs and cow’s milk and found that the data strongly supported the presence of cognitive dissonance.

While participants cited ethical, environmental, cultural, and familial reasons for avoiding meat products, the researchers report that the participants simply found it easier to forego meat than NMAP, despite recognizing similar ethical implications.


They also found an element of social negotiation that encouraged the consumption of eggs and dairy in place of meat products when eating in family and friend groups.

While many reacted with disgust towards milk, however, the reception of cheese was far more positive. With the US manufacturing a whopping 6 million metric tons of cheese a year, the participants of the study echoed that sentiment, describing the product as tasty and addictive. 

Ironically, however, it takes 10 litres (2 gallons) of milk to make just 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cheese, so cheese eaters are arguably consuming more milk than those who opt for milk instead of cheese.

Investigating the groups' apparent aversion to milk, they found that despite almost all participants being milk drinkers at some point in life, they now describe the taste as different and less enjoyable. The team suggests this could be that as milk becomes less familiar to them, its animal resemblance becomes more pronounced.


This distinction in the reception of milk and cheese points to the possibility that acceptance of a product relates to how far removed it is from the source. Occurring too in the meat paradox, where processed meat products are intentionally made to look less meat-like, the further away a product is from the animal, the more likely people are to willingly consume it.

Although this didn’t seem to be the case for eggs, despite them being consumed in an entirely un-processed state. For this, the researchers speculate that the way in which the product is obtained could play a role where it can be rationalized that eggs are “provided” rather than “taken”.

The study concludes with the recommendation that to bypass the cognitive dissonance of those who eat NMAP, cheese and eggs must be more overtly linked to living animals and to milk. Additionally, the mention of “humane” farm practices might actually be encouraging the formation of new ethical boundaries that allow the continued consumption of NMAP and the avoidance of behavior change.

The study is published in the journal Appetite.


  • tag
  • psychology,

  • diet,

  • ethics,

  • food,

  • dairy,

  • cheese,

  • vegetarianism,

  • veganism