Most people like animals and have no desire to hurt them. An estimated 63% of American households own at least one pet, and many love their pets like children, doing everything possible to protect their health and well-being. At the same time, however, at least 80% of Americans eat animals as a regular part of their diet.
In 2012, a group of researchers of the University of Queensland, Australia, led by Dr. Brock Bastian set out to examine this “meat paradox.” They proposed that people who both love and eat animals may attempt to reconcile this paradox—and reduce the cognitive dissonance associated with it—by reassuring themselves that the animals they consume, unlike their pets, don’t have minds and therefore don’t really suffer.
In the first study, participants were asked to rate a range of wild and domestic animals on 10 mental capacities, including the capacities for hunger, fear, pleasure, and pain, and then to rate the animal's edibility. Animals deemed appropriate for human consumption were rated as significantly lower in mental capacities than those deemed inappropriate for consumption.
The next question the researchers asked was whether the denial of mental capacities is a motivated process—that is, when faced with the possibility of an animal’s suffering in the service of meat consumption, do participants shift their perceptions of that animal’s mental capacities, seeing it as less capable of suffering, in order to reduce cognitive dissonance?
In the second study, participants rated the mental capacities of cows and sheep that were described either as simply living on a farm or as being raised for meat production. When reminded of the meat production process, participants saw the animal as possessing lower mental capacities than when they were not given this reminder. That is, participants viewed the same animal as possessing higher or lower mental capacity depending on what they believed that animal’s fate was going to be.
A similar pattern emerged in the third study: participants who expected to eat meat as part of an ostensible consumer behavior study gave lower mental capacity ratings, presumably again to avoid the dissonance of feeling complicit in an animal’s suffering.
We like to think of ourselves as acting based on our beliefs, but these results suggest that it’s often the other way around, with our behavioral commitments shaping our beliefs.
Does this mean we can never eat meat in an honest way? Not necessarily. Michael Pollan has argued that although meat-eating is not essential for survival, it is part of our evolutionary heritage and our identity as animals ourselves. According to Pollan, one way to reconcile the meat paradox without denying an animal's mental capacity is to eat meat more conscientiously, buying from smaller-scale farms that treat animals humanely, and to eat meat in moderation, prioritizing plant-based foods. Others argue that this approach does not go far enough in minimizing animal suffering—eating animals is eating animals, no matter how humanely we do it.
The lesson of Bastian and colleagues' research, though, seems less about pushing vegetarianism as it is about shedding light on the human tendency to justify behavior we’re uncomfortable with, a tendency that can range from benign to deeply destructive—research suggests that the motivated denial of mental states is not specific to meat-eating, but can occur anytime we feel responsible for another person or group’s suffering. The awareness of this tendency can help us make decisions more mindfully, whichever paths we choose.