Updated: Mar 29, 2021
I’d like to start this piece, with a short thought experiment. Imagine you are about to sit down to your evening meal. Tonight, you’re having beef stew. While eating your dinner, how likely are you to find yourself connecting the beef in your stew with the animal that it once was? Research suggests that the answer to this question is, not likely at all. Disconnecting the meat that we eat, from the animal that once lived, is known in the psychological literature as dissociation and is another powerful dissonance reducing strategy.
Dissociating the meat in your stew from the cow that once lived, doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact, it is quite normal. Our eating habits have become so habitual and so normative in society, that it would feel almost unnatural to deliberate the origins of bacon, steak or salmon. Certainly, nothing about the process which brought the meat to your plate encourages you to connect with its former life. Psychologists Jonas Kunst and Sigrid Hohle have found that the way that meat is prepared, advertised and labelled allows for us to dissociate from the animals that we are eating.
In their research, Jonas and Sigrid have shown that simply describing industrial meat production as “harvesting” instead of “killing” or “slaughtering”, causes us to feel less empathic towards farmed animals.Using these euphemisms for killing and referring to farmed animals as “crops”, creates an illusion that animals aren’t involved in our daily food habits.
The industry’s careful use of linguistic tools can be seen in the way that meat products are marketed too. We have come to use “pork”, “bacon” or “ham” to reference pig derived products and “beef”, “steak” or “sirloin” to reference cow derived products. It may seem that chicken is an exception to this rule, but notice how we use “chicken” as opposed to the plural “chickens”. The meat product loses its article and in a very subtle way, its connection to the former life. In their research, Jonas and Sigrid found that these subtle changes are in fact, very powerful. Their findings indicate that replacing words like “beef” and “pork” with “cow” and “pig” on a restaurant menu, significantly increases our empathy for the animal and reduces our willingness to eat meat. Pig sarnie, anyone?
The appearance of the meat product itself can impact on how well we are able to dissociate from the once living being. When meat products bear some resemblance to the original animal, for example those that are raw, bloody and fatty we are less able to dissociate from the animal. We find these products disgusting and are less likely to buy them. Jonas and Sigrid found that dissociation is successfully achieved only when the meat product is presented without the head and heavily processed. In both cases, empathy for the animal and disgust for the food product can be artificially reduced.
For this reason, meat production has focused on concealing and changing the animal form. Physical features that represent personality, like the eyes, the tongue or the brain are almost always removed before they reach our supermarket shelves. Meat today is more processed than ever before. We eat chickens in the form of nuggets, turkey in the shape of dinosaurs and fish in the shape of cakes. Living, thinking and feeling animals, now mere shapes on our plate.