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Gordon Hodson Ph.D.

The Meat Paradox: Loving but Exploiting Animals

How can people like and care for animals, yet nonetheless consume animal flesh?

In my research lab we have been examining how human-animal relations influence or affect human-human relations (e.g., racism and dehumanization). For instance, the Interspecies Model of Prejudice proposes that the greater the human-animal divide (i.e., perception that humans are different from and superior to animals), the more social value is afforded to representing human outgroups as “animal-like”, which in turn increases prejudice toward that group (see Costello & Hodson, 2010, in-press-a, in-press-b; Hodson & Costello, 2012; Hodson, MacInnis, & Costello, 2013; see also past Psychology Today columns here , here , and here ). Put simply, we dehumanize other human groups because we consider animals beneath humans in value and worth in the first place. If we didn’t, representing others as animal-like would have no social currency.

We now have a greater understanding of why ethnic prejudices (e.g. racism) are positively associated with speciesism. For instance, people who express greater ethnic prejudice also express the most willingness to exploit non-human animals, and this effect is underpinned (or explained) by the role of social dominance orientation linking these distinct forms of bias (Dhont, Hodson, Costello, & MacInnis, 2014). In other words, concepts like racism would not be associated with animal exploitation if not for the fact that some people, relative to others, value dominance and hierarchy (see figure below).

To psychologists, our treatment of animals is now a valid research question in its own right (i.e., not just in terms of how it relates to human prejudices). For instance, psychologists are studying the “meat paradox”, the puzzling situation whereby “most people care about animals and do not want to see them harmed, but engage in a diet that requires them to be killed and, usually, to suffer” (Loughnan, Bastian, & Haslam, in press).

How can we do this? Well, part of the answer is that we do not actually “like” animals in the sense you’re likely anticipating. Consider the patron of a strip club who “likes” exotic dancers. In some sense he does, but not in the way that prevents him from benefitting from their exploitation. Rather, he directly contributes to their exploitation. Liking or disliking others can often have little association with whether or not we exploit or protect them. The same goes for animals; we “like” animals a great deal (and are often suspicious about people who do not), but hedonistically we benefit tremendously from their exploitation. We accomplish this due to the presence of mental safeguards that attenuate our anxiety.

Psychologically we neatly cleave animals into relatively artificial categories, such as “pets”, “wild animals”, and “farm animals”. These categories affect how we treat those within the category. For the most part, our treatment of farm animals would be illegal if applied toward pets. If you bought a shed, filled it with cages, then crammed dogs into these cages so tightly that they cannot stretch or move freely, you would face strong social and legal sanction. But across North America chickens are so housed in battery-cages, not able to spread their wings or move about, deprived of fresh air and sunlight. Without doubt, animal categories are artificial and culturally bound – in America dogs are pets and cows are farm animals, but other cultures treat dogs as food animals and cows as sacred beings. There is nothing inherent about an animal that makes it consumable or sacred – this comes down to human psychology.

Within a given culture, we are now learning who is most willing to consume animals. For instance, those with right-wing attitudes are more likely to self-identify as meat-eaters and exploit animals (e.g., Allen, Wilson, Ng, & Dunne, 2000; Allen & Ng, 2003; Dietz, Frisch, Kalof, Stern, & Guagnano, 1995; Hyers, 2006; Ruby, 2012).

But why? Two recent studies demonstrate that right-wing adherents consume more meat and exploit animals more for two main reasons: (a) they push back against the threat that vegetarianism and veganism supposedly pose to traditions and cultural practice, and (b) they feel more entitled to consume animals given human “superiority” (Dhont & Hodson, 2014). You read that correctly: those on the left would not differ from those on the right in meat consumption if not for the latter’s relatively higher sense of threat from animal-rights ideologies and their sense of human superiority (and thus entitlement). Ideology, is seems, creeps into the very foods we eat (see Loughan et al., in press).

But what if right-wing adherents simply like the taste of meat more than those on the left? Good question. We considered this possibility also, and indeed the former do like the meat more as a product. But they consume more meat for reasons that have to do with ideology, even after statistically removing the influence of hedonistically liking the taste of meat from the equation (Dhont & Hodson, 2014).

The psychology of exploitation represents an interesting challenge to psychologists, in part because we’ve become so accustomed to (and often attached to) our forms of exploitation, often intertwining them deeply into our cultures and way of life. Psychological research suggests that, although animal rights are on the next enlightenment horizon, progress will be resisted in the same way that equality for gay marriage is resisted today.

References and Suggested Readings :

Allen, M. W., & Ng, S. H. (2003). Human values, utilitarian benefits and identification: The case of meat. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33 , 37-56.

Allen, M. W., Wilson, M., Ng, S. H., & Dunne, M. (2000). Values and beliefs of 979 vegetarians and omnivores. The Journal of Social Psychology, 140 , 405–422.

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2010). Exploring the roots of dehumanization: The role of animal-human similarity in promoting immigrant humanization. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 13, 3-22.

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (in press-a). Explaining dehumanization among children: The interspecies model of prejudice. British Journal of Social Psychology.

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (in press-b). Lay beliefs about the causes of and solutions to dehumanization and prejudice: Do non-experts recognize the role of human-animal relations? Journal of Applied Social Psychology. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12221

Dhont, K., & Hodson, G. (2014). Why do right-wing adherents engage in more animal exploitation and meat consumption? Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 12-17. DOI:

Dhont, K., & Hodson, G., Costello, K., & MacInnis, C.C. (2014). Social dominance orientation connects prejudicial human-human and human-animal relations. Personality and Individual Differences, 61-62, 105-108. DOI:

Dietz, T., Frisch, A. S., Kalof, L., Stern, P. C., & Guagnano, G. A. (1995). Values and vegetarianism. An exploratory analysis. Rural Sociology, 60 , 533–542.

Hodson, G., & Costello, K. (2012). The human cost of devaluing animals. New Scientist, 2895 , 34-35.

Hodson, G. & MacInnis, C.C., & Costello, K. (2014). (Over)Valuing “Humanness” as an Aggravator of Intergroup Prejudices and Discrimination. In P. Bain, J. Vaes, & J.-Ph. Leyens (Eds.), Humanness and dehumanization (pp. 86-110) . London: Psychology Press.

Hyers, L. (2006). Myths used to legitimize the exploitation of animals: An application of social dominance theory. Anthrozoos , 19 , 194–210.

Loughnan, S., Bastian, B., & Haslam, N. (in press). The psychology of eating animals. Current Directions in Psychological Science .

Plous, S. (2003). Is there such a thing as prejudice toward animals? In S. Plous (Ed.), Understanding prejudice and discrimination (pp. 509-528). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ruby, M. B. (2012). Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study. Appetite, 58 , 141-150.