The Meat Paradox: How Carnivores Think About Dinner

Temple Grandin is widely known as an advocate for animal welfare. She is also a slaughterhouse designer and meat eater. She has spent much of her professional life promoting humane practices for livestock farms and slaughtering plants, and has been recognized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for her tireless efforts. She has also written in defense of meat as a food, and is embraced as an ally by the meat industry. A couple years ago, she even defended the beef industry’s controversial marketing of pink slime.

Grandin has no trouble reconciling these views and activities. But she does have to reconcile them, as we all do. The average American consumes more than 250 pounds of meat a year, an appetite fed by the slaughter of 10 billion animals. Yet we spend a fortune on our pets, too. The fact is that we both care for animals and eat them. How do we manage the psychological tension created by these seemingly conflicting values?

Psychological scientist Steve Loughnan of the University of Melbourne calls this the “meat paradox.” He and his colleagues have been working for years to understand the psychological gymnastics we use to resolve and live with this moral dilemma. They summarize this research, and that of others, in an article to appear in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The surest and most obvious way to eliminate this moral and psychological tension is to abstain from meat—to become vegan or vegetarian. Many vegans say that they are disgusted by the idea of eating meat, and disgust is a powerful emotion. But very few of us ever take this step. That’s because—well, because meat tastes good. The interplay of pleasure and disgust determines whether we abstain or indulge in hamburgers and barbecued chicken.

Loughnan and colleagues wanted to know why pleasure trumps disgust for some of us, and the other way around for others. To find out, they have been studying carnivores themselves: What are their attitudes and values in general, and how do they perceive cattle and Labrador retrievers and other creatures? How do they tip the balance toward pleasure and away from disgust?

They’ve found some intriguing and consistent differences between meat eaters and vegetarians. For example, meat eaters tend to be more authoritarian in general, believing that it is acceptable to be aggressive and controlling with subordinates. Meat eaters are also more likely to accept inequality and to embrace social hierarchies. Apparently these attitudes—toward other humans—make meat eating less morally problematic. Interestingly, omnivores who value inequality and hierarchy also eat more red meat than do their less dominant peers. Meat eating is also closely linked to male identity—indeed, so closely that meat is often seen as metaphorically male. Apparently, real men really don’t eat quiche—at least broccoli quiche—or anything else that doesn’t come off a bone.

These personal values are also reflected in meat eaters’ beliefs about the eaten—perceptions of animals’ minds and their similarities to us. To be worthy of moral concern, a steer or tabby must be sensitive to pain and suffering. So simply put, we all ask ourselves, do animals suffer? But we answer that question in various ways. In recent studies, Loughnan and others have asked people to rate the extent to which 32 animals possessed mental capacities—and their willingness to eat each animal. They found that eating a “mindful” animal was seen as more morally wrong and as more unpleasant. Across cultures, respondents were more disgusted by the prospect of eating a thinking animal—a pet dog, for instance—than a hog.

People are biased by animals’ human-like traits. In one study, for example, people judged more human-like animals as more sensitive to pain. And they didn’t just report this view; they became more aroused physically when they saw these animals being mistreated. The opposite is also true: People who see animals as unlike humans also see them as more mindless and less worthy of concern. These perceptions provide a powerful cognitive tool for resolving the meat paradox. Notably, people may see animals as capable of suffering, but not when humanely killed. That seems to be the point of view of many omnivores, including Temple Grandin.

So there’s the eater and the eaten—and there’s also the very act of eating itself. If all carnivores must reconcile competing values in general, then this precise moment of eating meat—cow on fork–requires the most urgent kind of psychological resolution. That’s what Loughnan and his colleagues believe, so in one of their studies, they asked volunteers to eat either beef or nuts. They then described their moral concern for animals in general, and their estimate of a cow’s capacity for suffering. Those who had recently eaten beef—and only those—saw the cow as less capable of suffering. They also saw animals in general as less deserving of concern. The scientists got the same result when volunteers were merely anticipating the act of eating beef or nuts. In short, people seem to alleviate unpleasant feelings about eating meat by diminishing the minds of animals.

Readers will recognize these findings as consistent with the theory of cognitive dissonance. When behavior is a poor match with beliefs and values, something’s got to give. Vegetarians change their behavior. But the rest of us—nine out of ten—ease the discomfort by altering our beliefs—about animals’ minds, suffering, and moral standing.

Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.


If you look at human anatomy, it is clear we are not designed to be carnivorous. If you eat a well-balanced vegan diet there is no need for the needless suffering and slaughter of animals. Those who make arguments in favor of slaughtering innocent animals fail to look to nature to see some of the most powerful animals in the world are purely herbivores.

Hi Chris,
” is clear we are not designed to be carnivorous “- are you leaving the evolutionary process? In which stage of evolution are we?


I completely agree 100%. There is no need to be slaughtering innocent animals, mainly because a healthy diet doesn’t require consuming other animals or products produced by other animals. I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Food Choices” and I learned so much about what I really should be eating, a plant based diet. No calorie counting, no cheat days, as long as you eat plant based you don’t have to worry about all of that. Eat as much as you want until you are full, and don’t feel guilty because you weren’t eating any innocent animals.

Great article! Cognitive Dissonance, for the win. I love the research about authoritarian and egalitarian people and their tendencies to eat or abstain from eating meat. It’s also interesting to me that we judge the humanness of something by how much we perceive it to suffer. Really cool stuff.

Personally, I would not consider myself very authoritarian. However, I justify eating meat to myself by psychologically distinguishing it from the animal. Like most civilized folk of today, I buy my meat neatly packaged in a grocery store. I could not bring myself to slaughter something or probably even eat something that I saw slaughtered.

To me, hamburger is different than a cow. Bacon is different than a pig. And chicken is different than a chicken. Meat and animals are not the same thing. That’s what I tell myself each time I take a big, juicy bite.

I bet there’s research out there on this type of rationalization. I’d be interested in reading up on that too.

Very nice article. I am a vegetarian and I think now we all know that suffering and pain is common across all flora and fauna. So to kill a living being for food is not a very good idea. I think we all will live in perfect harmony with mother nature when we all turn vegetarian.

I think, this mismatch among belief and behavior is a part of practically not applicable philosophy of Western civilization. Philosophy is treated as an academic field or conceptually analyzed mental system, never used for a practical purpose. Meanwhile, Buddhism always emphasize the need of “considered behavior”, a philosophy based on your life and a life based on your philosophy. Your thoughts must match your acts. That’s why they are vegetarians.

sure all living animals feels pain. However, meat in a grocery store is dead and dead meat does not feel pain. Logically, there will be no effect upon the pain of living animals regardless of my eating habits I am happy to eat dead meat. It is good for the economy and for my body.

Supply and demand, Bob.

Bob, eating meet is not good for the economy, it is mostly good for the meat industry.

Bob that dead meat that you buy in the grocery store felt pain throughout its entire life and died so you can enjoy a few minutes eating it . I don’t know why you still believe it is good for your body when so many studies have proven plant based diets are healthier, and although it may be good for th economy , it is wreaking havoc on our planet whereas there are many humane ways to sustain financial growth .

I raise the meat I choose to eat. They do not suffer nor is their health ever in question.
When they are slaughtered it is done as pain free as possible. They might feel the initial blow but I doubt they have time to process any pain messages to the brain.
It is a matter of choice and I’m all about pro choice. I’ll eat meat and those that choose not to will be as respected by me as my meat eating friends.

My family and I had to deal with this very issue, and we made the decision to go vegan. What initially seemed like a sacrifice is now the best decision we’ve ever made. Our weight and cholesterol went down and our feelings of well-being went up. I don’t think we realize how much this constant cognitive dissonance affects us on a subconscious level. Because of the paradox “nine out of ten” are living with, however, it’s very difficult to get others to listen to data about animal welfare that makes them feel this discomfort. They usually reject it immediately without wanting to have a discussion.

Kathy, thank you for your comment. Cognitive Dissonance with regards to eating animals was why I decided to go vegan a while back. It was for the animals, but it was also for myself in the sense that I could no longer reconcile my inconsistent beliefs and behavior with regards to animals. After that, thanks to the internet and being able to research, I was able to quickly figure out that a plant-based diet was the healthiest thing I could have done and one of the best decisions of my life. I no longer have to do exhausting mental gymnastics every time I eat a meal. My beliefs, values, and behaviors with regard to animals are aligned.

Bernardette, exactly how I feel. I’m vegetarian with periods of almost veganism, (it’s hard in some places) but I will always agree with the point of view a lifestyle which doesn’t involve exploitation of wildlife and a negative footprint in the environment, is the right choice from an ethical point of view, as well as from the merely pragmatic. I wish meat eaters opened their eyes and saw they are screwing much more than the life of the animals they eat

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