The meat paradox
When is the last time you, or someone you know if you are vegetarian, ordered, “A piece of cow, medium rare please”? Why is it that Chinese restaurants don’t offer “Sweet & Sour Pig”? Instead of referring to the origins of some of our meats we have developed euphemisms like “beef”, “pork” and “mutton” to cover the fact that we are eating cows, pigs, and sheep (although admittedly we do seem to feel OK about eating “lamb”, “chicken” and “fish”). The “meat paradox” refers to the fact that the only way that people can bring themselves to eat and enjoy meat is by distancing themselves from the fact that they are eating what once was a living creature. The nuances of this were explored in a new series of five experiments.
In the first experiment, subjects saw chicken at various stages in processing: a whole chicken, drumsticks and chopped chicken fillets. Subjects were tested to see how much empathy they felt with the animal.
In the second experiment, subjects saw pictures of a roasted pig/pork. One picture showed the pig with head on and the other picture showed it without. Subjects were asked to what extent they felt empathy and disgust and whether they would eat the meat or would rather choose a vegetarian alternative.
For the third experiment, subjects saw two ads for lamb chops: one ad showed a living lamb, the other did not. The picture of the live lamb made them less inclined to eat the chops and they also felt more empathy with the lamb.
Then, in the fourth experiment, a restaurant menu featured the words “pig” and “cow” instead of “pork” and “beef”. Subjects were less willing to choose “pig” and “cow” and they also felt a combination of empathy and disgust.
People were also more willing to eat meat that had been “harvested”.
Lastly, in the fifth experiment, the researchers found that using the word “harvest” instead of “slaughter” or “killing” when describing what happened to meat led to less empathy and disgust. People were also more willing to eat meat that had been “harvested”.
In all, the research found that the less recognisable a meat is the less empathy and disgust people feel and they are then more likely to eat it. Euphemising allows psychological distance from what people are really eating and the fact that it is really an animal. The subjects for this study were in majority meat eaters, although some did express some difficulties around eating meat. The researchers noted that this research shows that any sensitivity people may feel around eating meat is less likely to be activated by the way that is currently presented.
As we move toward a middle of the century where warming and issues of feeding the population will be paramount, this kind of information is crucial. It seems likely that a more plant-based diet is beneficial for both the planet and the human being consuming it. If we want to have the conversation about what future food will look like, then this study shows that we need to do it with as little euphemism as possible so at least we are being honest in what we are talking about.
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