Many of us pretend that we believe in something, but our actions directly contradict our beliefs. For example, one weekend, while eating dinner at home with my family, I experienced a very stressful situation. I encountered what some people call the “meat paradox.” As an individual who
simultaneously loves to play with her dog (which requires a living animal) and eat meat (which requires killing animals), I found myself intrigued by the question of whether or not I should: a) feel guilty about this “meat paradox,” b) change my behaviour (actually do something about it), or c) whether or not I should really care about it at all (afterall, I am not eating my dog, right?). So what did I do?
I turned to the literature to see what other people’s strategies were for dealing with the stress that arises from having contradictory behaviours pointed out to them. It turns out that the most popular strategy for reducing this stress is to merely justify the behaviour and “keep on, keepin’ on!” Hank Rothgerber, a researcher from the U.S., examined meat eater’s reactions after being “exposed” to a vegetarian. The researcher predicted that if the meat eater is “exposed” to a vegetarian, then the meat eater will feel the need to justify his/her meat eating behaviour. In one study (study 1), participants read a brief description of either a particular individual’s vegetarian diet or gluten-free diet. The participants who read about a particular individual’s vegetarian diet justified their meat eating behaviour by reporting that animals do not feel the same emotions as humans and that animals do not possess the same mental capacities as humans.
In another study (study 3), participants read a brief description about one of two types of vegetarians. Some participants read about a vegetarian who freely chose to cut meat out of his/her diet; other participants read about a vegetarian who was forced to cut meat out of his/her diet for health reasons (e.g., food allergies). It was assumed by the researcher that meat eaters would feel more threatened by people who freely chose to cut meat out of their diet, and therefore, participants would feel more compelled to justify their behaviour when exposed to these “free choosers.” Participants who were exposed to a vegetarian who freely chose his/her diet felt compelled to justify their meat eating behaviour by being less likely to admit that animals can feel pain and more likely to believe that people have to eat meat to stay healthy.
In another study (study 5), some participants were asked expect disapproval from vegetarians. Participants who were expecting vegetarians to disapprove of them felt more negative emotions and justified their meat eating behaviour by reporting a belief that animals and humans are not similar.
All of these studies provide evidence that a meat eater’s most popular strategy for reducing the stress that arises from meat-eating guilt, is to merely justify their behaviour. However, there appears to be a second strategy as well.
|"I didn't eat it, mom! I swear!"|
Rothgerber also found that sometimes people lie about their behaviour in order to reduce the stress, guilt and discomfort. In study 2, participants either read a description about a “strict” vegetarian who is dedicated to their diet, or a description about a “vegetarian” who is not dedicated and who “cheats” on their diet all the time (i.e., eats meat). The researcher assumed that meat eaters would be more stressed out when exposed to the dedicated vegetarian. When meat eaters were “exposed” to the “strict” vegetarian, they lied by saying that they eat more vegetarian meals than they actually do eat.
Is this healthy behaviour? Is attempting to justify our inconsistent behaviours in a dishonest way, or lying, the best way to reduce our stress? I would argue that both 1) the tendency to justify our inconsistent behaviours and 2) lie, is extremely harmful not only for ourselves, but also for others. For example, when we are dishonest with our self, it harms those of us who are trapped in the “meat paradox,” just as it harms the addict who does not want to get high, but tokes up anyway. Justifying our behaviour and lying is only a short term “fix,” but is not a long term solution. Additionally, our dishonesty also harms others as well. For example, even though vegetarians may at times indirectly reveal our contradictory behaviours to us (e.g., merely by being present and eliciting thoughts in us about our own actions), this is not something that should be viewed as threatening to people who eat meat. Meat eaters should not feel the need to lie to vegetarians about their diet, or make them feel bad for their personal diet choices.
So what did I finally decide? Instead of being threatened by evidence that exposes our inconsistent and sometimes contradictory behaviours, we should all be true and honest to ourselves! When presented with information that challenges the consistency of our actions and beliefs, we must take the challenge as an opportunity to either change our behaviour or accept who we are. Taking responsibility for your actions is much different than merely justifying them. If you take this advice, you will personally live a more balanced, happy, honest life, and others will benefit by ceasing to be the victim of your personal discomfort and stress.
Rothgerber, H. (2014). Efforts to overcome vegetarian-induced dissonance among meat eaters. Appetite, 79, 32-41.