Updated: Mar 29, 2021
According to Psychology, inconsistency between our morals and our actions causes an internal tension known as dissonance. Like hunger, thirst or pain, dissonance is an unpleasant state that we seek to resolve. There are many ways in which we can resolve dissonance, as will be evidenced across this blog series. One way in which we can resolve dissonance, and the focus of today’s piece, is the mechanism known as avoidance. Simply - if we are able to avoid information that highlights this contradiction between our attitudes and our behaviours, then no dissonance can occur.
In the case of meat consumption, we don’t like to see, hear or think about the suffering that farmed animals experience, because it makes us feel uneasy about our food choices. So, we might scroll quickly past the graphic video of farmed animal abuse on Facebook, or avoid sitting with the vegetarian at lunch. Heavens forbid they tell us where the meat in our sandwich came from!
By it’s own nature, and relative to other dissonance-reduction strategies, avoidance is something of an apologetic strategy. Those of us who use avoidance to resolve dissonance are simply seeking to avoid recognizing and confronting the issue at stake. Research has shown that, women tend to be more inclined to use so-called apologetic strategies, like avoidance and even dissociation, for dissonance reduction. In comparison, men seem to be more inclined to engage in those unapologetic or direct strategies, like the denial of animal pain, and human dominance.
Psychologist Heather Bray has found evidence of the use of avoidance in conversations between parents and their children around the topic of meat consumption. Heather found that as parents we might try to avoid the conversation about the origins of meat with our young and oftentimes, very inquisitive children. During Heather’s research, one parent wrote: “I picked my daughter up from school, and she yelled at me that I had lied. I asked, about what? She explained that a teacher had told her that meat came from animals. Until that time, I'd avoided the subject, although she had asked”. As super as they are, parents aren’t super human! Like most people, they can feel conflicted about eating meat and use avoidance to reduce dissonance.
Research by Mark Pancer and colleagues adds to the discussion on avoidance, providing evidence of our human ability to avoid empathy. In this experiment, researchers manipulated the presence of two empathic triggers – a charity donation box and a handicapped individual, stationed at a table in a busy corridor of the University of Saskatchewan. The researchers measured the distance that was maintained between each passerby and the table, both during the presence and absence of empathic triggers. The research team found that the presence of the charity donation box and the handicapped individual caused passersby to walk in a wider arc around the table, suggesting a tendency to avoid having to engage empathically. The researchers conclude that empathy avoidance may be driven by judgments about the costs inherent to empathizing. In this case, the cost was monetary loss, but other costs can include physical demand, emotional distress, wasted time, missed opportunities and even lifestyle changes.
Our human ability to control and avoid empathy may add to processes that allows us to dissociate from animals and eat them. But, more often than not, avoidance is not an active, nor conscious process. According to Melanie Joy, most of us eat animals, not because we need to, nor even want to, but because we have been conditioned to by a widespread destructive belief system that operates outside of our conscious awareness. This invisible belief system is known as carnism and it supports our continued eating of a few select animals. Because carnism is an invisible belief system, and (until recently) has remained unnamed, eating animals seems to be a given rather than a choice. Ask yourself, have you ever wondered why we eat animals?
In reality, avoidance at the individual level is, largely, an unconscious process and some might argue, systemic. Consider the intelligent marketing of the animal agriculture industry, which has been designed in such a way that nothing in our environment at the point of purchase encourages us to consider the life of the animal that we intend to consume. Unlike the packaging of cigarettes, the truth about factory farming is not made explicit on the front of a bag of chicken nuggets. And, research suggests that these marketing efforts made by the animal agriculture industry are successful, as 67% of us say that we do not think about farmed animal suffering while shopping for meat.
As a whole, the animal agriculture industry, is removed from public consciousness. Industrial farms and slaughterhouses are located in remote and inaccessible places and we as consumers have little to no direct experience with farmers nor the production and slaughter and animals. The invisibility of our modern-day animal agriculture industry both encourages and enables our use of avoidance. As a result, avoidance has become something of a cultural norm.