“There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” – Morpheus (The Matrix)
We all like to think of ourselves as good people. But what happens when the choices we make conflict with what we believe to be right or wrong? How can a person who loves animals and hates animal abuse still consume meat? This contradiction is known as the meat paradox.
The Meat Paradox
Australian Psychologists Steve Loughnan and Brock Bastian, who have researched the topic, define the “meat paradox” as the “psychological conflict between people’s dietary preference for meat and their moral response to animal suffering.” They believe that “bringing harm to others is inconsistent with viewing oneself as a moral person. As such, meat consumption leads to negative effects for meat-eaters because they are confronted with a view of themselves that is unfavourable: how can I be a good person and eat meat?”.
In other words, eating meat while opposing animal abuse and slaughter creates a paradox that threatens not just how much someone loves meat but also their self-perceived identity. Instead of facing the horrors one meal can cause, people create social norms and cultural customs to ease their conscience.
In many cultures, not eating meat is considered a sign of weakness, even though eating animal products has been linked to all types of health issues. Most cultures celebrate holidays with meat-filled dishes that associate eating meat as a shared experience with friends and family. Veganism is looked down upon as extreme yet factory farming that keeps billions of animals in horrific, abusive conditions year after year is socially acceptable.
How someone deals with these internal conflicts says a lot about their ethics. Most of our decisions are decided after choosing to go through with them. When we decide to indulge, we begin justifying our behavior to ourselves to stop that nagging voice that tells us we aren’t doing the right thing. Our beliefs are often inconsistent, leading us to say one thing and do another.
Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance in 1957 to describe a person who has inconsistent beliefs or beliefs that don’t match up with their actions.
Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith created an experiment in 1959 to test their theories on cognitive dissonance. The classic experiment asked the question: “What happens to a person’s private opinion if he is forced to do or say something contrary to that opinion?”
This study had participants carry out tedious, repetitive tasks for thirty minutes at a time. After completing their assignments, each participant was taken back to the waiting room and told that the other person in the room was the next participant. Two-thirds of the participants were asked to lie to the next participant and tell them how much they enjoyed the experience. They offered half $1 for their lie. They provided the other half $20, a significant sum in the 1950s.
Festinger’s Experiment Results
Afterward, every participant was asked to rate the tasks they performed. The control group, the one-third who were not asked to lie, said the tasks were dull and they would not like to do them again. The participants paid $20 said the same as the control group. Here is where it gets interesting, though. The group paid $1 rated the experiment as much more enjoyable and were much more likely to participate in future experiments.
So, what happened? The participants probably didn’t view $1 as adequate compensation to lie and experienced cognitive dissonance as a result, but they had already carried out the actions. They had already told a lie, and there was no going back. The only option available was to convince themselves that maybe they did enjoy the experience, therefore easing their cognitive dissonance. The control group had nothing to lose and consequently told the truth. The $20 group felt significantly compensated for their lie, so they weren’t bothered by cognitive dissonance.
Festinger came to these conclusions regarding cognitive dissonance:
- “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.”
- “When dissonance is present and trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information, likely increasing the dissonance.”
“This was the first of many experiments to show that we often bring our beliefs in line with our behavior, and that money can change the way we do this.”
Change The Behavior or Change The Belief
We know the difference between right and wrong, but we make choices contradicting that knowledge. The things we want to do are not always in line with the things we should do. So how do we reconcile these differences in our minds? We can do one of two things. Change the behavior or change the belief.
Meat eaters fight hard to hold on to faulty beliefs regarding the animal industry because not knowing is better than acknowledging the actual cost of a meal that includes animal products. Those forced to admit the atrocities perpetrated by factory farming may become confrontational or attempt to justify their choices and behavior. Sometimes they even adjust their beliefs to justify the action.
What’s In a Name? Cognitive Dissonance.
Another prevalent strategy employed to deal with meat-related cognitive dissonance is dissociating meat from its source. In other words, we draw distinct lines between the “animals” we love and the “meat” we eat.
How our meat is labeled and presented makes a big difference in how we perceive meat-eating, and factory farms know this. Saying “beef” instead of “cow” or “ham” instead of “pig” allows us to distance ourselves from the animal who died for our supper. Processing and packaging meat until it no longer resembles the animal it came from is standard practice. The overall appearance of prepackaged, plastic-wrapped, chopped-up meat makes it hard to see the actual animal that was killed.
Companies also utilize “cutification,” making animals appear cute and cartoon-like. These images imply that the animals are happy and imaginary. Their purpose is to distract you from the cruel truths of the animal industry. These methods allow us to distance ourselves from the animals and their suffering, thereby alleviating our meat-related cognitive dissonance.
Five studies conducted by Jonas R. Kunst and Sigrid M. Hohle further prove this theory, known as the dissociation or disassociation hypothesis. The first three studies focused on processing stages and presentation. The fourth and fifth studied terminology usage such as “beef” vs. “cow,” “pork” vs. “pig,” or “harvest” vs. “slaughtered” or “killed.”
The first study showed participants a chicken in various processing stages: whole chicken, drumsticks, and chopped chicken filets. The scientists measured their association with the animal and empathy for that animal in each instance. The second study showed participants two photos of a roasted pig – one beheaded, the other not. Again, the scientists gauged the participants’ associations to the animal and to what extent they felt empathy or disgust. They also asked participants if they would prefer to eat meat or a vegetarian alternative.
“Highly processed meat makes it easier to distance oneself from the idea that it comes from an animal. Participants also felt less empathy with the animal. The same mechanism occurred with the beheaded pig roast. People thought less about it being an animal, they felt less empathy and disgust, and they were less willing to consider a vegetarian alternative.”
The third study presented participants with two advertisements for lamb chops. One had a picture of a live lamb, and the other did not. The participants were less willing to consume the lamb chop featuring the photo and had more empathy for the animal.
Studies four and five indicated that the terminology used in presentation also affects the degree of empathy or disgust people feel and their willingness to eat meat. Replacing pork or beef with pig or cow made people much less willing to eat meat. People were also much less empathetic when they used the word harvest to replace slaughter or kill.
These studies confirm what philosophers and animal rights activists have claimed for years. We actively avoid thinking about the animals we eat and work to distance ourselves from the thought of what we are eating—not facing where our meat comes from allows us to ease the cognitive discomfort known as the meat paradox.
Ignoring The Suffering of Animals & People
The meat paradox isn’t just about eating meat. When a culture or society accepts living, breathing sentient beings as objects or machines, animals or humans, the disassociation of where things come from opens the door for accepting all types of immoral scenarios.
Money may be the root of all evil, but cognitive dissonance is the real villain. Humans commit all manner of atrocities in the name of culture or to save a buck. We all know that child labor and unsafe, underpaid working conditions are wrong, but we turn a blind eye to where our cheap products come from. Farmers will claim to love their animals like family, yet send them off to be slaughtered as soon as they can make a profit.
Even after being faced with reality, many people will start to justify their actions without realizing they are fooling themselves.
You’ve Been Living In A Dream World, Neo
In the movie “The Matrix” the main character, Neo, is offered the chance to remove himself from a false reality created by aliens to grow and consume humans as power sources.
The simulation is so real that most of humanity has no clue that in their true reality everyone is floating around in a pool of goo, waiting to be eaten, while their mind tricks them into thinking they are living in a normal world. And humanity’s collective minds are so determined to keep up the ruse that most in the simulation will try to kill anyone who tries to show them the truth.
“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy.” – Morpheus (The Matrix)
By choosing the red pill, Neo will see “the path of finding out the truth behind the lies, providing the opportunity to forever change your knowledge and perception of reality.” or taking the blue pill will place his mind back into the matrix, without seeing the real horrors that surround him.
Choosing The Red Pill
As any vegan or social activist can tell you, it’s hard to become fully aware of horrific things that are happening in front of everyone’s eyes, yet nobody seems to care or even pay attention to what they are funding through willful ignorance. Once a person has fully accepted the reality of the horrors they participate in, they want everyone else to see it too. They just know that if others understood what was happening, they would HAVE to care…yet too often impassioned pleas are met with taunting, disdain, or annoyance.
It is easier for most people to stay in a version of the matrix and ignore what is happening, instead of facing up to the facts that they are contributing to things that they don’t truly agree with. But isn’t it time for humanity to wake up and stop turning a blind eye to what we are doing to the animals, our planet, and each other?