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How Can We Love And Eat Animals? #5 Dichotomisation

Updated: May 18, 2021

During the summer solstice, people all across China gather in the South East province of Guagnxi to celebrate the controversial Yulin Festival, or as it is more commonly known, The Dog Meat Festival . Across a period of ten days, tens of thousands of dogs and cats are killed for human consumption. The festival is part of a wider cultural tradition of dog meat consumption. Dog meat in particular, has a long history in Chinese cuisine, a practice that continues today. It is estimated that the dog meat trade in China leads to the slaughter of approximately 30 million dogs each year.

At the time of writing, a petition to shut down the Yulin festival had raised over 4.1 million signatures – a number which seems to increase by the day. So what is it about the Chinese consumption of dog, that causes us such offense? When asked to provide a reason for signing the petition, one person wrote: “because dogs are humans best friend! Not food!” and another: “because dogs are pets, they are part of the family”. It seems that a proportion of the outrage comes from the fact that the festival blurs the line between our definition of “friend” and “food”.

The act of categorising an animal as “friend” or “food” is known in the psychological literature as dichotomisation, another powerful dissonance reduction strategy that we use when faced with the meat paradox. Research shows that very simple act of categorising an animal as food, reduces the animal’s perceived capacity to think, feel and suffer.

In one particular experiment, Psychologist Boyka Bratanova presented participants with the Bennett’s Tree Kangaroo, an animal unique to Papua New Guinea. Half of the participants were additionally informed that the animal was used for food by the local people. When categorised as food participants rated the Kangaroo's capacity to suffer and their moral concern for the animal lower than when it was not categorised as food. Dichotomising an animal as food is a simple but powerful mechanism for reducing dissonance because it distorts our moral judgments of animals.

In a more recent study using EEG, a measure that records brain activity, researchers found that when people are presented with an image of an animal described as food, the area of the brain that processes faces is significantly less active than when the animal is not described as food. This research provides evidence of the strategy dichotomisation, visible in the initial stages of face perception.

Dichotomisation is a universal response to dissonance reduction, which varies culture to culture. When the categories that have been defined by our own culture are changed, we can experience a great deal of discomfort. This may lead us to believe that the way our culture has categorised animals is right and the way that others do so, is wrong and unjust. In the UK, we categorise cows, pigs, chickens and sheep as “food” justifying the relevant behaviour to farm, slaughter and eat them. We do so without thought because our culture has dictated that to be the animal’s purpose.

Our repulsion and outrage at the consumption of dog meat in China is a perfect example of how dichotomisation varies by culture. But it is just one of many. Consider the horse meat scandal, which plagued Europe in 2013. As can be understood from it's name, this was a situation whereby food products advertised as containing beef were found to contain horse-meat – as much as 100% in some cases! This sparked outrage, particularly amongst British and Irish people, who typically, do not consider horses to be food. Research suggests that we in the UK, lost trust in our supermarkets following the scandal and simply stopped purchasing the affected products. But, the same cannot be said for those affected in Italy, where horses are seen as food and the consumption of horse-meat considered a delicacy. Because of that, the Italians simply didn't share in our outrage.

While the consumption of dog in China, or the consumption of horse in Italy might offend us in the UK, it is important to know that even our own food choices are a cause for offence in other cultures around the world. For example, those of Hindu faith value cows as sacred animals and forbid the consumption of beef. Similarly, those of Muslim faith, forbid the consumption of pork. So, it certainly works both ways.

With that, I will leave you with a question for you to puzzle. Have you ever wondered, why it is that you eat pigs, cows and chickens, but not dogs, cats nor horses? And if you haven't wondered, do you wonder, why you have never wondered? And that is a great segue for me to leave you with a link to Beyond Carnism - a concept that might help in answering this puzzle.

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