Study: Marketing “Protects” Meat-Eaters From Empathy

People must mentally detach themselves from animals in order to eat them.


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A series of five studies conducted in Norway and the United States by researchers at the University of Oslo explored the psychological dissociation people experience between meat as food products and the animals they come from. Postdoctoral fellow Jonas R. Kunst and colleague Sigrid M. Hohle measured the levels of empathy more than 1,000 participants felt for animals depending on the states in which those animals were presented. The first three studies focused on visual dissociation, with the first presenting a chicken as cooked whole, as drumsticks, and as filets. The second study displayed a roasted pig both with its head attached and without, while the third showed participants an advertisement for lamb chops—one featuring a live animal and the other featuring meat cuts. Participants in all three studies showed more empathy toward the whole animal, even asking for a vegetarian option when presented with the head-on pig. “Highly processed meat makes it easier to distance oneself from the idea that it comes from an animal,” Kunst says. The fourth and fifth studies focused on words. Participants felt more empathy toward words such as “pig” and “cow” when they replaced “pork” and “beef” on a menu. In the last study, researchers replaced the words “slaughter” and “killed” with the more pleasant “harvest,” which participants indicated conveyed less disgust. “The presentation of meat by the industry influences our willingness to eat it,” Kunst says. “Our appetite is affected both by what we call the dish we eat and how the meat is presented to us.” This research is the first time scientists have empirically proven the long-standing “dissociation hypothesis” argued by animal-rights activists that claims meat eaters must possess a certain level of psychological detachment from an animal in order to consume it.