The psychological reasons for vegetarianism are more nuanced than has been previously theorised, according to a new study published in the journal Appetite.
The reasons people choose to avoid meat vary greatly across cultures, and researchers should be cautious about assuming that similar thought processes are at work, say the study’s authors, even though people might arrive at the same dietary outcomes. In particular, they suggest that animal and environmental welfare are the main drivers of vegetarianism in Western cultures, while in India, the idea of spiritual contamination and respect for tradition are core concerns.
In addition, the wider belief systems associated with vegetarians in Europe and North America compared to their omnivorous counterparts – such as lack of respect for right-wing political views, and strong pro-ecological views – may not apply to Indian vegetarians, driven by different morals and cultural norms.
“In Western cultural contexts, vegetarians and omnivores have been shown to view meat in very different terms,” they wrote.
“Although omnivores usually have positive explicit attitudes toward meat, associating it with luxury, good taste, and social status, vegetarians in the UK, Canada, and Germany tend to associate meat with cruelty, killing, disgust, and poor health and research with Irish and Dutch populations reveals that for many vegetarians, these negative associations are also present on the implicit level.”
The researchers found that Indian vegetarians endorsed the idea of ‘authority’ much more than Western vegetarians, with the notion defined as “showing respect for authority, fulfilling the duties of one’s role, and respecting the traditions of society”.
However, differences in attitudes and values between omnivores and vegetarians did not exist to the same extent among Indian participants.
The researchers concluded with a warning that similar moralised behaviours may not involve the same moral process. They wrote: “Taken together, the present studies demonstrate that moral reasoning can play a significant role in common, everyday decisions, such as what to have for dinner, and suggest that the psychological associations of vegetarianism are more nuanced than has been previously theorized.”
“Compassion and contamination. Cultural differences in vegetarianism”
Authors: Matthew B. Ruby, Steven J. Heine, Shanmukh Kamble, Tessa K. Cheng, Mahadevi Waddar