Cognitive dissonance is a term psychologists use to explain how the human mind protects itself from its inherent contradictions. Smokers deny a link between cancer and cigarettes so they can go on smoking, for example. (Blogs 3/17/16, 3/17/16) We all behave the same way. We’re human. Of late, researchers have turned their sites on the cognitive dissonance of meat eaters. How is it that people who love animals, want chickens and cattle to roam free and share YouTube clips of ducks parenting their offspring, can choose to eat them? (“Mind Over Eat,” by Marta Zraska, Scientific American Mind, July/August, 2016, pgs. 51-55.)
The answer is we relegate the species we want to eat to a lower level of existence than those we don’t. We tell ourselves that animals we use as food sources have no emotions and feel little pain. They are scarcely above the level of plants. But dogs and cats strike us as nearly human. We are shocked by pictures from China that display skinned canines hanging from meat hooks in an open market and laugh at places in Indiana where cows are sacred.
Consider the pig as evidence of our cognitive dissonance at work. A pig is of high intelligence. It can be taught to use a computer and, like dogs, it understands pointing cues from humans. (Ibid pg. 52.) But a dog has made itself useful to our species. It can herd sheep, lead the blind, and assist in criminal investigations, for example — tasks which makes it a worthy companion. The pig, though an equally sentient creature, has never established itself as a service animal. Hence, pigs and other farm creatures are slaughtered for food at a rate of nine billion per year. (Ibid pg. 52) We call pigs pork once they’ve been butchered. Changing the label creates a distance between the carcasses we eat and the once intelligent beings that experienced emotions and could feel pain.
Vegetarians, who represent 3-5% of our population, fail to employ cognitive dissonance when they see food animals. A recent study between them and carnivores, using magnetic resonance imaging, revealed “a higher engagement of empathy-related areas, such as the anterior cingulated cortex…” than those who ate meat. (Ibid p. 53.) The question remains why.
If reason dictated our behavior, the justifications for eating meat wouldn’t hold water. Meat isn’t healthy for us; it isn’t the best source of protein and food animals are as sensitive to cruelty and pain as animals we keep as pets. People eat meat because they like it. Plain and simple. And because they like it, cognitive dissonance allows them to love animals and go on eating them.
One day, however, the question of animal consumption will be called into serious question. As writer Zraska points out, “Meat eating is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than driving cars…” (Ibid pg. 55.) When the choice is put to us, as it must be, will we choose bacon or our planet?
(Originally published 7/25/16)