The Cognitive Dissonance of Eating Animals

Hand drawn cut of pig

Humans have never eaten the quantity of animals we do now at any other point in history.  But most people still consider themselves good and kind.  So, how is it that we genuinely don’t want to see animals suffer and yet bring billions of them into the world each year only to kill them?  How can we feel one way yet act in such a contradictory way?

Supporting something that goes against our values (“I am a compassionate person and don’t want to harm others”) requires a numbing and cognitive dissonance.  We have to look away, we have to live in ignorance and tell our conscience to STFU to partake in something that goes against what we believe.  This is one reason you take your kids apple picking but you don’t take them to a slaughterhouse: because it would be impossible to explain to your kids that you want them to be kind while paying someone to do something very unkind.

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It’s impossible to hold these beliefs at the same time:

(1): That animals feel pain and that we’re causing them to suffer

(2) That the consumption of animal products create disease and that we eat them anyway (and feed them to our loved ones).

So when our actions don’t reflect our values – we do one of two things: we either change our behavior to align with our beliefs (killing animals is bad so I won’t kill animals), or we change our beliefs to align with our behavior.  The latter manifests in more subtle ways, such as changing our perception of animals themselves.  Research has found that the way we perceive animals is intimately tied to our ability to eat them; for instance, according to researchers on the psychology of meat consumption, “eating animals is morally troublesome when animals are perceived as worthy of moral concern.  The more moral concern we afford an entity, the more immoral it becomes to harm it.”

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One way of resolving the tension between our compassion for animals and our consumption of them is to categorize animals as “food.”We refer to “pork” instead of “pig,” “beef” instead of “cow,” and “veal” instead of “calf.”  The act of categorizing shifts our focus away from morally relevant attributes (the capacity to suffer), and therefore change our perception of and our moral concern for the animal.

To put this into perspective – we don’t call the plant food we eat by different names.  Spinach is spinach.  But then again, we don’t have to convince ourselves that somehow, spinach doesn’t fear death, cry out in pain, or suffer.

Reducing animals to inanimate objects, we resolve our cognitive dissonance not by changing our behavior to no longer cause suffering to animals, but by removing the belief that (certain) animals can and do suffer.  When we categorize pigs, cows, chickens, and turkeys as “food” we subconsciously declare that we don’t want to look at what happens to these animals.

Another way we do this is by dismissing research that confirms that sentient beings feel pain.  How often have you heard the erroneous rumor that fish or lobster don’t feel pain when they die? They certainly do. But we look away.  This is along the lines of the same “I buy milk from ‘happy cows,’ who are treated very well” lie.  There is no such thing as a happy cow when you kill a cow that wanted to live.  Another lie – “cows have to be milked.”  Again, cows provide milk because they are mothers, not because they are cows.  We tell ourselves these lies to avoid the real truth. 

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Another way we convince ourselves to kill animals is by putting our desires high above our morality.  This looks like –“Of course I care about animals, but I just love cheese so much” or “I know pigs are more intelligent than dogs and don’t deserve to be abused or killed, but I could never live without bacon.”

We also tend to distance ourselves from people or messages that call out these behaviors.  Have you ever felt triggered by someone asking you why you consume meat or dairy but own a cat or dog?  We choose like-minded friends with whom we can rationalize our behavior.  This can blind us to the negative consequences of our actions—like the gruesomeness of slaughterhouses.  Ironically, we tell ourselves these things because we are kind and compassionate people.  We don’t tell our kids where meat comes from because we don’t want to subject them to the horror of death.

We can’t truly be at peace, though, until we take a good hard look at reality.  We are information-gathering species, and this will liberate us from this hypocrisy.  I challenge you, if you have not already – go to a slaughterhouse (if you’re allowed near it – animal agriculture laws have made what they do very secret, because they don’t want you to know what goes on in there). Or, watch a documentary with slaughterhouse footage.  Think of your family pet, would you want this to happen to them?  

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