from Emily Reynolds
Meat consumption in the UK has decreased by 17% over the past decade, with increasing numbers of people questioning the health, environmental and moral effects of eating meat. While some do not regret their meat taste, others find it morally ambiguous, with big questions about how justifiable their diet really is.
A new study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, takes a closer look at how meat eaters deal with these dilemmas. It notes that accusing third parties of blaming them for moral transgressions can reduce cognitive dissonance when consuming meat.
In the first study, 310 American carnivorous participants were randomly assigned to read a newspaper article describing animal abuse prevalent in factory farming. The article described the lack of space, lack of fresh air, lack of natural behaviors, and slaughter that occur in factory farming. In one condition, participants read that the factory farms were in the United States, while in the other, the farms were in China.
At the end of the article, half of the participants in each group were able to express their moral indignation at the owners and operators of factory farms by saying or not saying “knowing that animals are helpless against factory farms makes me angry on their behalf” . . They then reported how guilty they felt about the treatment of these animals and rated their own moral character compared to other people on a scale of one to five. The other half of the participants proceeded to these measures without articulating outrage.
Those who did not have the opportunity to express moral outrage felt more guilty and had lower ratings of their own moral character when they read that their “in-group” – that is, other Americans – were responsible for the factory farms. But for those who do did Expressing moral outrage, there was no difference in guilt or perceived moral standing regardless of whether they had read about American or Chinese factory farms, suggesting that guilt for others may reduce feelings of guilt and moral guilt. A second study replicated these results.
In a third and final study, the team investigated whether highlighting the harms associated with eating meat would also encourage meat-eaters to express their outrage at other unrelated acts of animal abuse. A total of 300 participants were again assigned one of two conditions. To instill a sense of defensiveness when consuming meat, those at risk for meat read an article detailing the harm meat eating does to both the environment and the world’s poor. Those in the other condition haven’t read an article at this point.
Next, each participant read an article about the abuse of dolphins at SeaWorld and viewed images of the abuse. Half of the participants were then asked to briefly describe something about themselves that made them feel a good person, while the other half described their preference between Mac and Dell computers. Finally, participants shared their moral outrage towards SeaWorld.
Among those who read the provocative article, there was much less moral outrage towards SeaWorld when they subsequently affirmed that they were good people than when they did not do the affirmation task. For those who had not read the first article, the confirmation did not affect the moral outrage expressed.
Overall, the results suggest that expressing outrage about factory farming or other animal cruelty is a way of repairing one’s moral self-image. This could alleviate people’s guilty feelings about eating meat – but when the guilt is alleviated in this way, people “could feel even more encouraged to consume meat,” according to the authors.
The team suggests that future research could focus on campaigns aimed at “delegitimizing the belief that expressing displeasure about an injustice grants moral capital to participate in others”. Coupled with other interventions – to use an example – to use disgust – this could help increase the number of people who cut off meat.
– Motivated moral outrage among meat eaters
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles