According to the Old Testament and Leon Festinger when people suffer for what they love, they tend to love what they love even more. Aversive consequences for freely chosen outcomes can often have the perverse effect of creating more commitment rather than the change that common sense, rational economic theory, and operant conditioning would predict. Today we observe dissonance in action over the . . . dinner table.
Brock Bastian and colleagues devised a series of three lab experiments that tested the dissonance properties inherent in people who love animals and also like to eat them. The Bastian team proposes that people must engage in dissonance reduction to both eat their animals and love them, too. Further, they expect cognitive gymnastics characteristic of dissonance from people who eat what they love.
Consider experiment 1.
Participants completed a questionnaire that required them to rate 32 animals sampled from previous research (Gray at al., 2007; Laham, 2009; Morewedge, Preston, & Wegner, 2007; see Figure 1). Selection of animals was designed to cover a range of wild and domestic animals that varied in the extent to which they were readily eaten . . . Participants rated the degree to which each animal possessed 10 mental capacities using a 7-point scale (1 definitely does not possess, 7 = definitely does possess) . . . Participants then indicated the edibility of each animal (2 items: “Would you choose to each this animal” and “Would you eat this animal if asked to?”; 1 = definitely would not, 7 = definitely would; across animals α = .99) as well as well as how bad they would feel if they ate each animal and how morally wrong it would be to eat each animal (1 = not at all, 7 = extremely).
So, from a list of 32 animals, some of which were often consumed as food and others which were not, people rated how edible each animal was and, most interestingly, people also rated the mental capacity of each animal. See the potential dissonance reduction here? If you like to eat an animal then you may also see it as having less mental capacity which makes the critter just a walking cheeseburger rather than the lovable Bessie who enjoys children, long walks in the pasture, and mooing at sunrises. The Bastian team find a strong, but inverse, correlation between edible and mental.
As predicted, perceived mind was negatively associated with the animal’s edibility (r = –.42, p < .001; see Figure 1) and positively with feeling bad about eating the animal (r = .77, p < .001) and with how morally wrong it would be to eat the animal (r = .80, p < .001).
Thus, people see a relationship between whether an animal should be eaten and the cognitive characteristics of that animal. Edible animals are dumb, inedible animals are smart and at Large Windowpanes.
Now. Let’s flesh this correlation out in Experiment 2.
Participants completed a questionnaire that required them to look at a picture of a cow and a sheep surrounded by grass. Preceding each picture was a description of the animal. Two versions of the questionnaire were used with either the cow or sheep on the first page and the other on the last page. When either the cow or sheep was presented first, it was described as living on a farm, including the description: “This lamb/cow will be moved to other paddocks, and will spend most of its time eating grass with other lambs/cows” (control condition). When the cow or sheep was presented last, it was described as being bred for meat consumption, including the following description: “This lamb/cow will be taken to an abattoir, killed, butchered, and sent to supermarkets as meat products for humans” (food condition). Both the animals were pictured surrounded only by grass, and participants completed an unrelated task that took approximately 5 min between each rating.
So, you are rating two animals, a cow and a sheep. For the experiment they will be run in different orders, but everyone rates both. The first animal shown will be described in a bucolic, pastoral setting while the second animal will be described as food in an industrial food chain machine. After reading each portrayal you rate the mental qualities of the animals. Does your rating vary with how the animal is described?
An independent samples t test indicated that when reminded that an animal would be used for food, meat eaters denied it mental capacities (food animal: M = 4.08, SD = .86) compared to when no such reminders where provided (nonfood animal: M = 4.30, SD = .82), t(65) = 3.24, p = .002 (see Figure 2).
That t value translates into a Large Windowpane of about 25/75. When you see the cow or the sheep against a pastoral background, the critter enjoys a rich interior life of the mind filled with pleasure, joy, and worries. When you see the beast as part of the food chain, it’s a dumb animal.
So, now we’ve got two experimental demonstrations that people think differently about animals and their mental states depending upon whether they are food. As creatures of the fields, we attribute states of mind and feeling similar to humans; as burgers on the plate, we attribute no mind or heart to them. This is consistent with dissonance, but still not a strong demonstration. So, Experiment 3!
People completed several tasks that appeared as different projects, but were actually components of the drama a good dissonance experiment often requires. Everyone first sees that cow/sheep in the pasture scenario and does the ratings on the mental and emotional states. It establishes a baseline, the unmanipulated status. Then everyone is given a 20 minute task unrelated to this burger dissonance play. Now, we get to the experiment, posed as a marketing study about consumers and food. As part of the experiment, you’ll have to eat food and provide your opinion about it. People were then given a choice to opt out of this marketing study about food and instead complete a different experiment that was described as a fairly boring, tedious, but easy, study on attention.
This choice between the marketing food study or the attention study doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is a major element in the dissonance play. The choice is a commitment and everyone who decides to continue with the food study has made a voluntary choice with foreseeable consequences. You cannot blame the future on anyone but yourself given this choice. After choosing the food study, everyone was told they would have to write an essay about food. Here, the experimenters made the dissonance manipulation.
In the meat sampling condition (high dissonance), participants were told they would be writing about where beef/lamb comes from and the processes involved in putting it on our supermarket shelves. They were explicitly instructed to write about the processes involved in raising cattle/sheep on the farm right through to the eventual packaging of meat for human consumption. In this condition participants were also told they would be sampling beef/lamb. In the fruit sampling condition (low dissonance), participants were asked to write the same essay but were told they would be sampling apples . . . At this point the experimenter placed a bowl of apples and a plate of appetizingly presented delicatessen roast beef/lamb “infused with rosemary and garlic” on the table. Participants then proceeded to write their essay in full view of the food they were about to sample.
Let’s do a quick recap here. Everyone has done that baseline rating of the mental state of animals. Everyone has chosen to participate in a marketing study about food. Everyone will write an essay about food production with a detailed focus upon raising an animal to kill it for food. Half the people will eat beef or lamb. Half will eat apples. The meat and fruit is placed in front of each person. They write.
Realize the different processing states of the two groups, Meat or Fruit. Both are writing about killing animals for food, but only one will actually eat meat. Dissonance theory would argue that for people anticipating meat, they would think differently while writing compared to people anticipating fruit. If this is true, then if we ask everyone to rate again the mental and emotional state of animals like we did at baseline, we should see a big difference between those anticipating Meat versus those anticipating Fruit. So, the experimenters have everyone do that rating task again. Here’s the bar chart.
Boom. Exactly as predicted. And the numbers?
Simple contrasts revealed no difference between T1 (M = 4.40, SE = .10) and T2 (M = 4.38, SE = .11) for the fruit sampling condition (p = .688), but a significant reduction from T1 (M = 4.31, SE = .10) to T2 (M = 4.03, SE = .11) for the meat sampling condition (p < .001).
This appears to be a Medium Windowpane effect, about a 35/65 difference. People in the Meat condition reported the Dumb Animal effect more than people in the Fruit condition even though they both wrote the “same” essay. Thus, contemplating the consumption of fruit while writing an essay about killing animals for food allows you to see Bucolic Bessie, but contemplating a tasty burger while writing that same essay encourages perception of the Dumb Beast.
The conflict between loving what you eat and eating what you love causes these dissonance effects in us. For those of us who grew up watching Disney movies and those unforgettable anthropomorphized animals, thinking a little too much about the meat on our table can produce tension, worry, and dread. You’re eating Bambi! But, our human nature in the form of dissonance reduction permits us to enjoy both Disney and McDonalds often at the same moment.
Now. If you are a nutrition advocate (i.e. vegan loving meat hater), do you see anything here? Do you realize that your efforts to discourage meat consumption may only trigger dissonance processes that make the Other Guys even more resistant to your persuasion? When the Other Guys feel ambiguous about their food, they can engage in dissonance reduction that serves to strengthen their food consumption. It has nothing to do with Big Marketing or Big Food or Lying Conservatives or Disney Corp or anything else other than persuasion and human nature.
Think on it.
And, of course, if you are Big Food or Big Marketing, you should be looking at this study and dissonance persuasion for your own work. Want more committed customers? Hmmm.
Dissonance burgers. No wonder it’s so easy to sell the fries with that.
Bastian B, Loughnan S, Haslam N, Radke HR. Don’t mind meat? The denial of mind to animals used for human consumption. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2012 Feb;38(2):247-56. Epub 2011 Oct 6.