Do you eat meat? What about animals? Scientists slice open a carnivore's paradox

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Do steaks come from this animal in the mind of most carnivore shoppers? ©iStock
Do steaks come from this animal in the mind of most carnivore shoppers? ©iStock

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The way meat is prepared, advertised and labelled has led to a disconnect between animals and meat and fuelled consumption, according to new research.

Scientists at the University of Oslo in Norway undertook a series of studies amongst consumers in Norway and the US to test (for the first time) the so-called ‘meat paradox’ – the fact that many people enjoy eating meat but don’t like causing pain to animals.

In five studies, the researchers demonstrated that “meat practices in the modern world facilitate divorcing meat products from their animal origins, thereby reducing empathy and disgust, which ultimately bolsters meat consumption”. ​The “sterile supermarket presentation of meat”,​ for instance, makes it “extremely easy”​ for consumers to ignore the link between a pork chop and a pig on a farm.

Lead author, Jonas Kunst from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Oslo, said: “The presentation of meat by the industry influences our willingness to eat it. Highly processed meat makes it easier to distance oneself from the idea that it comes from an animal.”

The findings could have important implications for campaigns aimed at reducing consumption of meat, he added.

Meet your meat

In three of the studies, Kunst, along with Sigrid Hohle from the Simula Research Laboratory in Oslo, examined processing stages and presentation.

In the first of these, chicken was presented at different processing stages: a whole chicken, drumsticks, and chopped chicken fillets. The researchers measured participants’ associations to the animal, and how much empathy they felt with it.

The more processed the meat is, the easier it is to dissociate it from the animal it originated from, they found. Buying meat at this late stage of processing may therefore make it “particularly easy”​ to mentally disengage it from its animal origin.

sheep lamb
Lamb imagery in advertising reduced the likelihood people would buy lamb chops. ©iStock

Removal of the animal’s head also made participants feel more willing to eat its meat. In a second experiment participants were presented with pictures of roasted pig – one beheaded and the other not. “A beheaded pork roast causes more willingness to eat meat and less willingness to consider a vegetarian alternative,”​ they concluded.

In the third study they presented two adverts for lamb chops – one with a living lamb and the other without. Participants were more willing to eat the chops in the latter. “A living animal in an advert disrupts disassociation and decreases people’s willingness to eat the meat,”​ they concluded.

But for companies keen to tout their meat products it’s not a simple case of erasing animals from any advertising. An animal grazing can also create positive cues for consumers, especially in relation to animal welfare, Kunst and Hohle noted. This may “relieve consumers’ bad consciousness to some degree”,​ they noted.

“We all have a sensitivity in us, but this sensitivity is rarely activated because of the presentation of meat,”​ said Kunst.

Meat harvesting

mortadella, pork, ham, Copyright antoniotruzzi
A pig, last week. ©iStock

In the other two studies, they investigated the use of words and phrases. They found that replacing ‘pork’ and ‘beef’ in a restaurant menu with ‘pig’ and ‘cow’ made people less willing to eat meat. They also found that using the word ‘harvest’ – which is increasingly favoured in the US in place of of ‘killing’ or ‘slaughter’ – made people feel less empathy with the animal.

Kunst said his results “support a line of philosophers and animal rights activists who have said that the way meat is presented and talked about in our culture, makes us consume more of it”.

The findings could therefore be used in efforts to limit consumption, he added. Presenting pictures of the animals in meat advertisements or on menus is one possible approach. However, the will to do this is “probably limited”​, given that there are “strong financial interests involved”​, he said.

Source: Appetite

Published at:

Meat eaters by dissociation: How we present, prepare and talk about meat increases willingness to eat meat by reducing empathy and disgust”

Authors: Jonas R. Kunst, Sigrid M. Hohle


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