Changing Minds on Meat Eating

Published in Psychology Today, 25th November 2016.

We should avoid the unnecessary suffering of animals—no one but the most disturbed among us would disagree. Unfortunately, pointing out that this moral square peg doesn’t usually fit in the round hole of meat-eating is distasteful to many. The ideological zeal with which many preach their love for tofu has driven us to treat vegetarianism like a religion; ‘I don’t care what your personal dietary (or deity) choices are, so long as they remain just that—personal’. Indeed, the classically virtuous vegetarian is invisible. Don’t mention the war, and don’t mention the abattoirs.

Or should we? A new study conducted by the Reducetarian Foundation—the first of its kind—suggests otherwise. Researchers found that news stories about reducing and eliminating meat-eating effectively lowered meat consumption. A group of 2,237 participants were divided into three groups and each assigned to read a certain news article. The first story emphasised reducing meat consumption, the second advocated eliminating meat altogether, while a third article (the control) commented on the benefits of walking as a form of exercise. Participants self-reported their meat consumption one week prior and five weeks after reading the article. Those who read about reducing and eliminating meat from one’s diets reported eating less meat in the subsequent month—about one less serving per week (while the control group remained unchanged).

Lead researcher Bobbie Macdonald rightly noted, “One serving per week might seem like a small effect, but that’s equal to a 6.5 percent reduction in total meat servings.” The paper also reported that attitudes toward animal welfare, environmental impacts and health implications of meat-eating were altered for the better.

But how can reading a single article change one’s attitudes and behaviour to such an extent? After all, most people are already aware of the dark-side of their next hamburger. What aspects of these articles were really pulling the levers?

It’s hard to say, however research on safe driving campaigns can help orientate us. The authors of one of the most comprehensive driving safety meta-analyses, published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, noted the best examples of success stem from adverts that signal changes in circumstances. These circumstances exert a downstream effect on behaviour, which is then followed by a change in attitudes to align with the newfound behaviour. Adverts warn us of changes in driving legislation or enforcement, we slow down on the road, and lastly we justify our safer driving with lofty claims of ethical wisdom. So while we intuitively feel we are safe drivers, therefore driving at a reasonable speed with laws to maintain this, this is entirely backward.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Fifty years of psychological research have converged on a vacuum of conscious reasoning in the engine of much of our decisions and actions. We tend to explain our own behaviour how we would for another: Observe behaviour and extrapolate backward to deduce motivation, intention and reasoning. We are not reliable witnesses to the inner workings of our own minds.

So with respect to the Reducetarian study, what could represent an alteration in circumstance motivating behavioural and then attitude change? One likely candidate can be found in the opening paragraph of the two “test” articles: “You can’t help feeling that eating less meat is becoming unavoidably mainstream, with more and more people choosing to be vegetarians (or “reducetarians”)…In the US, over six million people have eliminated (or reduced) their meat intake, and that number is rising”.

Indeed, perceived shifts in one’s social landscape represents a salient change in conditions. Evolutionarily, our psychology is primarily designed for getting along with people within our own group, and dealing, either nicely or nastily, with members of other groups. We are creatures of conformity—social chameleons who help ensure our inclusion by blending imperceptibly into the moral background of the herd.

Whether or not this “bandwagon effect” is achieving the heavy lifting in the study, its findings show positive changes in meat-eating can be guided by external forces—in this case a simple and short news article. Though I’ve been distracted at times by comments under my previous pro-veggie articles such as, “This makes me hungry for bacon” or “Now I’m going to have TWO steaks for dinner,” I am reminded to not be dissuaded by the trolls.

Admittedly, the study in question suffers from its reliance on self-reported surveys, which are inevitably vulnerable to a slew of cognitive and sampling biases. But it’s part of an indispensable step toward effective animal advocacy, environmental activism and population health. Many agree the reduction of meat-eating (as it’s currently produced) represents a higher peak on the moral landscape, and research such as this provides us with some crucial latitudes and longitudes on the map. Should you tell your co-worker you’re vegan? Should you publicly reenact a slaughterhouse that looks more like a BDSM display? These are empirical questions that can be answered by empirical research. The Reducetarian Foundation is helping lead the way.

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