Recognising that our consumption of meat causes animals to suffer is a source of discomfort for many people. After all, we love animals, and we wouldn't ourselves inflict harm on them. In the psychological literature, this discomfort arouses an unpleasant state known as cognitive dissonance. Like other driver states, hunger, thirst and pain, cognitive dissonance is something that we strive to resolve.
However, it might still be possible to avoid the arousal of cognitive dissonance, even when we make the connection between our meat consumption and animal suffering. Psychologists Russel Fazio and Joel Cooper say that an inportant piece of the dissonance puzzle is the experience of feeling personally responsible for the consequences of the action in question. Emphasis on personally.
So if we ask ourselves, is it strictly my fault that these animals suffer? It is only when the corresponding answer is yes, that dissonance occurs. And, importantly, if we can just convince ourselves that the answer is no, then we can successfully avoid dissonance.
Convincing ourselves that we do not have a choice in the matter is one way to relieve us from feeling any sense of personal responsibility and in turn, cognitive dissonance. In the case of meat eating, this is the mentality that we don’t have much choice but to eat meat and therefore, the consequences of the industry are beyond our control.
The socially normative nature of meat consumption certainly makes it seem like we don’t have a choice but to take part. When we begin eating meat as children, we aren’t asked what our preference would be and throughout our lives, we are scarcely encouraged to revaluate whether eating meat aligns with our morals and values.
Instead, we come to learn that we have no choice but to eat meat, because it is a necessity for optimal human health and thus survival. With that comes the belief that veganism is nutritionally insufficient and vegans themselves undernourished and weak. Fortunately, that is simply not true as exemplified by the healthy vegans among us. In fact, some of the world’s strongest and most athletic people are vegan. Take Patrik Baboumian, for example. Today, it is more widely accepted that eating meat is no longer a necessity for human health. For most of us, certainly folk in the developed West, meat is a luxury and one that we choose.
What's more, it can be hard to feel as though we are personally responsible for what happens to farmed animals, because we are so disconnected from the industry that rears them. And strategically so. As a result, we feel as though we play no part in what goes on. Not the rearing, nor the slaughtering. We see this thinking in the common rationalisation that the animal was "already dead” when it arrived to me, the consumer. And, it is this train of thought that can lead us to believe that purchasing meat is doing a service to the animal that died. Ensuring that the animals death wasn't in vain. From this, many people go on to argue that it is the industry and the government who have not only the responsibility, but also the power to make a change.
In my own research, I find that individuals can be fairly persistent with this type of argument and persistent even in the face of contradictory information. In a recent experience sampling project that I conducted, participants viewed a range of motivation boosting infographics. These infographics, two of which are included below, outlined some of the reasons why it is important for us to reduce our meat consumption. In designing these infographics, I had been very careful to detail the potential that each individual had for having an impact on such global issues.
In this study, participants had the opportunity to respond to the infographics by typing out a sentence or two in a comments box left underneath. In analysing this data, it is clear that many participants strategically downplay the role that they could have in fighting back against these issues. Often times, this manifests itself as expressing the opinion that while they might have an impact, it is ultimately the responsibility of the government and large corporations to take action on such issues. One participant summarises this nicely: "very important. however more responsibility lies on large corporations and governments than the average consumer".
So, does this thinking hold up? Is it true that big corporations and government are ultimately responsible for this issues associated with meat consumption? Perhaps less so than we might like to think. In fact now, there is a growing consensus in the academic literature that large-scale shifts in consumers’ dietary patterns could help to deliver health and environmental benefits on a scale and reach not achievable by production-based improvements alone.
We must not forget that as consumers, we are the demand that motivates the supply. Purchasing animal-derived products increases the demand for more animals to be bred into existence, to live short and painful lives before being slaughtered. It has been estimated that by abstaining from meat, each and every one of us can save the lives of up to 582 farmed animals and 26 people who would otherwise die from chronic malnutrition, every year!
Our potential for impact is huge. But recognising that potential represents a very real hurdle.