Study shows meat eaters avoid guilt by believing animals don't suffer
“Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.”
– Mark Twain
Both modern science and common sense tell us that animals bred and killed for food suffer. Factory farms subject billions of animals to torturous abuse every year, and even the numerically few animals raised on comparatively idyllic farms are fattened specifically for slaughter. As a vegan living in an age when the connection between diet and practical morality seems so painfully clear, I frequently wonder why people are not wracked with remorse every time they eat meat.
Some explanation for this perplexing puzzle may be found in a study published recently by the academic journal Appetite which concludes that many meat eaters are in abject denial about food animals' capacity for suffering. Researchers began their investigation with the assumption that subjects would resolve the “meat paradox” of desiring meat but not wanting to harm animals by either 1) becoming vegetarian, or 2) tacitly discounting that eating meat entails killing animals. But upon testing this hypothesis, they instead found participants much more commonly chose a third option—professing a belief that animals are incapable of suffering.
Furthermore, researchers discovered that the very act of eating meat“reduced the (subjects') perceived obligation to show moral concern for animals”—in effect reinforcing their belief that animals don't suffer. Extrapolating from this correlation, one could surmise that meat eaters are caught in a self-perpetuating feedback loop of delusion that feeds their habitual thought and behavior patterns. Meaning, the more meat people eat, the more often they must consciously or unconsciously condition themselves to believe that animals don't suffer, cumulatively strengthening this increasingly unquestioned conviction.
Like the many other defense mechanisms catalogued by pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, denial enables people to avoid direct confrontation with frightening aspects of the human condition. His daughter Anna was the first to systematically study denial in depth, and she classified it as the reaction of an immature mind to perceived threats. Therapeutically, reliance on defense mechanisms is considered maladaptive because they stunt our ability to cope with reality and preclude psychological progress.
Denying animals' capacity for feeling seems to fit right into this diagnostic model, so what does it mean that the majority of people still eat meat? Is society itself suffering from a mass cultural neurosis that has been overlooked by virtually every practicing clinician? Most psychotherapists eat meat, so the very same denial that keeps people believing that animals don't suffer would also blind psychologists to their own self-deceptions.
With my measly psych BA and only one long-ago year of grad school in counseling under my belt, I am clearly unqualified to say whether denial of animals' suffering should be officially added to the D.S.M. 5, but from my layman's perspective, it appears to meet the key criteria. The fact that the majority of people are in denial about something so important doesn't make this denial any less real—actually, its statistical prevalence and relative invisibility make it even more troubling than mental distortions held only by a minority of outliers. That is, such widespread and socially-sanctioned denial not only alienates individuals from essential parts of their own psyches, but also perpetuates the ongoing victimization of billions of animals the world over every year.
While it's highly doubtful that institutional psychology will acknowledge denial of animals' suffering as a serious subject of clinical concern anytime soon, activists can still use insights from the psychological literature to raise people's moral awareness of other species. By understanding people's defenses against acknowledging animals' suffering, we can form effective strategic approaches that target the problem's root cause—the mind's reflexive cognitive processes. This particular study is a good place to start, so here are some suggestions for how animal activism can pragmatically apply its findings.
- Since we cannot assume that most meat eaters grasp and accept the basic fact that animals suffer, we must emphasize evidence from ethological, neurological and physiological research showing that they do. We can also point out that farmed animals like cows, chickens and pigs are just as smart and sensitive as our canine and feline friends.
- Having already overcome our own denial about animals' suffering, we activists can use our experience with this paradigm shift to determine whether defense mechanisms impact other areas of our lives, thereby gaining a deeper appreciation for how these conceptual traps insidiously influence people's thoughts, emotions and actions.
- Scientifically speaking, eating meat bolsters the denial that keeps people from realizing that animals do indeed suffer. So, conversely, persuading them to choose vegetarian and vegan meals at least periodically provides personal opportunities to critically examine their beliefs about animals. Encouraging meat eaters to try flexitarian meal plans like Meatless Mondays, Vegan Before 6, or Weekday Vegetarianism allows them to explore compassionate dietary changes without having to face the paralyzing fear of never again being able to taste their favorite foods.
I have been vegetarian since 1996, and vegan since 2002. Between 2004-2009, I was a staff writer/editor for two animal rights non-profits: In Defense of Animals and Farm Sanctuary. I've also written many articles for both magazines and websites, as well as brochures, flyers and booklets about veganism and animal rights. Much of my published writing is on my websites: www.animalrighter.com and www.ultrawriting.com.