By Emily Reynolds
While some vegetarians crave meat (and occasionally give in to temptation), others who avoid animal products find meat repulsive. Those who eat vegetarian for moral reasons – as opposed to those who do for health reasons – are particularly likely to find meat disgusting, even after enjoying its taste beforehand.
According to a new study by a team at the University of Exeter, it’s not just vegetarians who find the look of meat gross – meat eaters sometimes too. And in a world where many of us are encouraged to cut out meat for the sake of the environment, researchers suggest that harnessing that disgust could be a way to cut down on consumption when other techniques fail.
The 711 study participants were a mix of people with different eating habits – 56% were identified as omnivores, 28% as flexitarians (i.e. those who are sometimes vegetarians and sometimes omnivores), and 15% vegetarians, some of whom were vegans and other pescatarians .
First, implicit attitudes towards meat were measured with an implicit association task (IAT). Participants were presented with a series of pictures of foods that they had to classify as meat or carbohydrates and words like “lazy” or “yummy” that they had to classify as “tasty” or “gross”. The participants sorted both pictures and words into categories with the left and right keys of their keyboard: on one side they saw, for example, “carbohydrates OR disgusting” and on the other “meat OR delicious” (in other experiments “meat” was paired with “disgusting”). If you find meat delicious, you should react faster when “meat” and “delicious” have the same key, the logic goes (although the IAT itself has been controversial).
Next, the team looked at explicit Reactions to meat. The same images of meat and carbohydrates were used, with participants being asked to rate the images on a scale of 0 to 100 based on taste, likelihood of eating the food, and feelings of disgust. Finally, the team measured self-monitoring of how much meat participants ate and how long they had followed their particular diet. A follow-up survey six months later repeated these measures.
Vegetarians showed the highest levels of disgust in both the explicit and implicit tests, with flexitarians facing the second highest before omnivores. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, were liked equally in all groups.
Vegetarians don’t like meat: it’s hardly news. But what was What was interesting about the results was the relationship between meat legs and consumption in the other two groups. In both the omnivore and the flexitarian sample, those who felt a higher level of explicit meat consumption also had a lower level of meat consumption.
The follow-up study provided further evidence that disgust has a noticeable impact on how people eat. Flexitarians who showed an increase in their explicit disgust for meat during the six-month period had also reduced their meat consumption at the time of the second survey.
Encouraging disgust for meat could therefore be a way of encouraging people to eat less meat. The team points to previous research suggesting that many omnivores simply suppress feelings of disgust when eating sentient, emotional creatures: harnessing that knowledge and increasing disgust could be a way to convince someone that life is better vegetarian is. It may not be a foolproof strategy, however – it is currently unclear in which direction the effect is working. Does disgust make people eat less meat, or does reducing meat increase disgust? Further research could examine the direction of cause and effect in more detail.
– Meat leg is negatively associated with meat consumption – Evidence from a cross-sectional and longitudinal study
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles