Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Death by Denial

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.

Therapeutic Implications

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.

Activist Applications

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.


  1. Very interesting, sadly I am not surprised. Our brains are brilliant rationalization machines. There are extreme and rare disorders, where, for instance, people feel that one of their limbs is not their own, and will come up with complex scenarios which they believe in 100%, to explain why this limb only LOOKS like it is attached to them, but in fact, is not. Children rationalize their parents' bad behavior routinely, and as adults they will rationalize why they are NOT like their parents, even if they are. Many will rationalize away guilt by passing the blame on. Very few people I met were able to say straight out: "I know eating meat that causes so much suffering is wrong, but I just love the taste too much to give it up".

    Denial is extremely hard to counter. People will watch movies, and will convince themselves those are extreme and rare cases, not the routine. People will read books, and will convince themselves that it's too big of a problem for themselves to make a difference. People will state "clearly known truths" such as "all doctors say milk is good for you" and "meat is the best source of protein" in their own defense. I'm calling daycares now, and one person actually yelled at me when I asked about NOT providing my OWN toddler, down the line, with 3 glasses of milk per day.

    Sorry, I have no solutions, just more to say about the problem. I think Daniel is right, the long term solution will be monetary (eliminate all subsidies and forces FacFarms to pay for true cost of environmental and community damage - making it not worthwhile financially), practical (providing people with easy alternatives that are truly competitive - fake meat doesn't cut it for the vast majority of people), and legal - enacting a set of laws about humane treatments, that would actually be ENFORCED, which is not the case now. Each of these would be easier that trying to "take down" individual denial, one person at a time...

  2. Thanks for this fascinating and important post. As with any complex problem, we need multi-pronged solutions: reminding people about the feelings and emotions of animals in addition to concerns about health, the environment, workers, economic incentives and disincentives, religion, weight, happiness, and so on.

    Please visit Eco-Eating at www.brook.com/veg and The Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg as well as No Smoking? at www.brook.com/smoke

  3. Once again, very well spoken and articulated Mat. It really made me consider two issues: 1) The massive amount of societal support and collective peer pressure to accept denial as an acceptable way to exist in this world, and 2) whether or not this denial could possibly manifest in health problems in meat-eaters since it is the suppression of something so intrinsic to their daily lives. Thanks for the piece!

  4. Lisa Soldavini8:47 PM

    Great job Mat! Now we just have to figure out a way to approach and educate people without them feeling threatened. This denial is so entrenched.

  5. Great work, Mat. Well researched and articulate, as always. Unfortunately, activists are up against the enormously deep pockets of agribusiness, which spends millions every year subsidizing the moral disconnection people have with farmed animals; Big Ag helps convince omnis that meat, eggs and dairy foods are healthy, while masking the suffering of the animals who die to provide these products. It’s distressing to me how far consumers will take the issue, even to the point of denying that some animals, such as fish, are not in fact animals at all -- as though classifying them as the equivalent of plants somehow removes their capacity to feel pain and thus makes it OK to kill and eat them.

    I think at some level, many if not most people do feel guilty (or at least conflicted) about eating animals, but they disavow their role in the bloodshed with a variety of excuses, some ranging toward the ridiculous: God put animals on Earth to be eaten; animals eating animals is part of the natural order; if we didn’t eat animals, they’d overpopulate the planet; someone else killed this animal, not I. Indeed, I believe that if people had to slaughter an animal themselves before consuming his/her flesh -- could hear their vocalizations of pain and witness the fear -- we’d see a lot more vegetarians in this world.

  6. Thanks Mat for such a great, well-researched post. I agree with Mark that on some level many people do feel conflicted about eating animals; notice that vegans and vegetarians commonly get defensive comments from omnivores at the mere mention of our dietary preference. The thing that always kills me are people who say they love animals (usually meaning dogs, cats or wildlife) but continue to consume the bodies of farm animals. Denial is indeed powerful.

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