This site is easier to read in landscape format on mobiles.

Psychology research team studies meat-eaters

Chris Satori
Dieticians and nutritionists issue repeated warnings about the very common effects of overeating meat on health.

Climatologists warn that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, including 37 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. The methane releases from billions of animals on factory farms are 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth’s atmosphere than CO2.

In addition, to prevent the inevitable spread of disease from stress, overcrowding and lack of vitamin D, factory farmed animals (ie most food animals) are routinely dosed with antibiotics.

So an international team led by Dr Jared Piazza, lecturer in Moral Psychology at Lancaster University, has been looking into how meat-eaters go about handling any guilt feelings that might arise about eating meat.

They also studied how these strategies related to other characteristics, such as concern or disregard for social equality, animal welfare or ethical food product choices and ability to distinguish mental activity in animals

They have found that those meat eaters who find reasons to justify their eating habits not only feel less guilty - but are also more accepting of social inequality.

Dr Piazza said: “Morally motivated vegetarians may serve as a source of implicit moral reproach for many omnivores, eliciting behaviours designed to defend against moral condemnation.”

In English this means that for some meat-eaters, when they see vegetarians, they may feel that they themselves are being judged badly for eating meat, and so they work out reasons to justify doing it, as a defense.

The team examined the ways in which people justify eating meat.

They found that the vast majority of omnivores defend their practice of eating animals by using one of four rationalisations, which they call 'the 4Ns'.

Dr Piazza explained: “The relationships people have with animals are complicated. While most people enjoy the company of animals and billions of dollars are spent each year on pet care and maintenance, most people continue to eat animals as food. People employ a number of strategies to overcome this apparent contradiction in attitude and behaviour.

"One important and prevalent strategy is to rationalise that meat consumption is Natural, Normal Necessary and Nice."

This study asked students and adults in the United States why they find it OK to eat meat.  The largest category used to justify their choice was that that it is “necessary” followed by the other three categories.

Typical comments used to justify eating meat include these 4Ns:

  • Natural “Humans are natural carnivores”
  • Necessary “Meat provides essential nutrients”
  • Normal “I was raised eating meat”
  • Nice “It’s delicious”
Men endorsed the 4Ns more than women - while people who rejected these justifications showed a greater concern for animal welfare.

People who said meat eating is Natural, Necessary, Normal and Nice also share other characteristics; they attributed fewer mental capacities to cows and were more tolerant of social inequality among humans.  

The study also indicated that they were:
  • less likely to be motivated by ethical concerns when making food choices, 
  • less involved in animal-welfare advocacy, 
  • less proud of their animal-product decisions, 
  • highly committed to eating meat. 

Omnivores who strongly endorsed the 4Ns tended to experience less guilt about their animal-product decisions, highlighting the guilt-alleviating function of the 4Ns.

Dr Piazza said: “The 4Ns are a powerful pervasive tool employed by individuals to diffuse the guilt one might otherwise experience when consuming animal products.”

The research Rationalising Meat Consumption. The 4Ns in the journal Appetite is co-authored by Matthew Ruby and Juliana Kulik from the University of Pennsylvania, Steve Loughnan from the University of Edinburgh and  Mischel Luong, Hanne Watkins and Mirra Seigerman from Melbourne University.