This weekend, I went to Wurstfest, a celebration of German music, crafts, and heritage, but mostly of beer and meat. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat too much meat, mostly because I don’t care for it too much and know that too much of it isn’t good for me. Until recently, I stuck eating things with two legs (chicken, turkey) or no legs (fish), but not four legs (no cow or pig). I’d tell people the leg rule when they wanted to know what I do and don’t eat, and had thought of it as an efficient way of communicating. But maybe it was more than that.
A new paper in the journal Appetite (the paper is behind a paywall, but this good summary is not) shows that our behaviors around meat shape the way we think of it, and in turn shape our willingness to eat it.
- Presentation: When meat resembles the animal it originated as (or is shown with an image of the animal it originated as), we view it with more empathy than if it bears less resemblance. The researchers found this with chicken in various stages of processing, a pork roast with its head either on or off, and an advertisement for lamb chops that was either accompanied by an image of a living lamb or not.
- Language about the process of slaughtering animals. Participants read about the mass slaughtering of cows, which was presented either with the word slaughtered, killed, or harvested. Reading about slaughtered and killed cows led people to have more empathy toward the animals than the tamer, more distant verb harvested did.
- Language about the food itself. Some people read a menu that listed its items under the categories of pork and beef and others read one that referred to these same foods under the categories of pig and cow. People whose options were referred to by the actual animal names showed more empathy and disgust towards the foods, as well as a decreased willingness to eat meat and a greater willingness to opt for a vegetarian food. Other work has called the practice of using words like pork when we’re really talking about a pig linguistic camouflaging, a way of concealing what something is by using a certain name (not much different from the consequences of euphemism more generally)
Across all of the studies, the researchers found that the effects were driven how much people dissociated themselves with the foods. In cases where they showed less empathy and disgust and were more willing to eat meat, they had greater mental distance between themselves and the potential foods than cases where they were more empathic. In other words, seeing an entire pig carcass with its head on made people feel closer to the animal, which led to feelings of empathy. The beheaded carcass, on the other hand, doesn’t feel so close, so people felt less empathic.
The language studies intrigue me the most, but I’m also considering that it’s not just that certain words encourage us to dissociate and mentally distance ourselves from food more than others driving differences in empathy and willingness to eat meat. Slaughtering and killing, for instance, have only one definition. The definition insinuated, especially in the case of slaughter, that violence was probably involved. Harvesting is not a synonym for these words. You can harvest crops, which means to remove them from their tree or vine as they are intended to be removed. It’s not violent, and few people would call it cruel. It’s also not a common way of talking about killing animals (my Google Ngram search confirmed this intuition).
The participants who encountered the phrase harvest cows were not only encountering a phrase that actually has meanings beyond the meaning in context (as opposed to the alternative conditions), but they were also encountering a less common one, which can be a partial explanation for why their responses looked different than responses from the other conditions.
The menu that labeled items as either pig/cow or pork/beef is similar. English convention is that foods and living animals are referred to by different names. When convention is broken, people will pause a little longer to consider what they’re reading. While the findings that people responded differently to these two menu conditions (and to slaughter/kill vs. harvest) are numerically true, we should also consider that familiarity with different words and practices will also shape our thoughts and behaviors.
One neat thing I discovered is that there are languages that don’t use different terms for the living animals and food animals, like German. Does the habitual use of using food-only animal terms like beef actually encourage us to systematically think of meat differently than the habitual use of animal terms for food and living creatures? Based on the amount of meat I saw at Wurstfest this weekend, I’d guess no, but it’s still a possibility.