The Meat Paradox

Originally published by Hinduism Today

Two good friends take a weekend outing through idyllic countryside, driving slowly by green pastures with cows quietly grazing, they gaze endearingly as one coos with a jealous tinge, “I love how those cows are sooo peaceful and content.” Returning to town around midday, they nonchalantly waltz into a family restaurant and enjoy big, juicy hamburgers. 

The above phenomenon has been dubbed the Meat Paradox—being fond of animals while regularly consuming their flesh. Elisa Aaltola, tells us, “Research on it posits that it is caused and maintained particularly by six factors: Cognitive dissonance, dissociation, strategic ignorance, hedonism, custom and marginalization of empathy.”1

In a first, a group of researchers in the UK reviewed all known surveys and literature up to May 2020. Their findings were summarized in 2021 in the Social Psychological Bulletin as “A Structured Literature Review of the Meat Paradox.”2

The meat paradox represents a form of cognitive dissonance, a term describing discomfort arising from a contradiction between one’s beliefs and behavior. For instance, in most US surveys meat-eaters expressed concern about animal welfare. The extent of discomfort varied according to the context. Sixty-seven percent were concerned about animals in research, 57% in zoos, and 54% in food production. 

The study concluded that concern for animals is shared by most people. In fact, we empathize more with dogs than with adult humans. Nevertheless, 90 to 97% of people consume meat.

According to cognitive dissonance theory, the innate goal of humans is to achieve consonance, or compatibility between behavior and values. The strategies toward this end are of three types: 1) To adjust one’s values; 2) To change one’s behavior (also known as moral engagement); 3) To obscure the contradiction between one’s values and behavior (moral disengagement), such as not thinking about the animals one is consuming.

Since most meat consumers say they care about animals yet continue to eat meat, they are clearly not following strategy one: they do not change their values. And it is clear via statistics that the paradox does not lead them to completely change their behavior, though it does cause some to reduce meat consumption. 

This leads to the conclusion that meat-eaters must be employing some form of moral disengagement (strategy three) to obscure the contradiction between meat-eating and their compassion toward animals. It is this pattern that perpetuates meat consumption.

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This article was originally published by Hinduism Today and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

  1. Aaltola E. The Meat Paradox, Omnivore’s Akrasia, and Animal Ethics. Animals. 2019; 9(12):1125. []
  2. Gradidge, S., Zawisza, M., Harvey, A. J., & McDermott, D. T. (2021). A Structured Literature Review of the Meat Paradox. Social Psychological Bulletin16(3), 1-26. []

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