Why most people eat meat

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In the 1950’s, the American psychologist Solomon Asch recruited participants at Swarthmore College (United States) for a now famous experiment.* He told them he was doing research on perception, but in reality this was a study about conformity and social pressure. Asch showed the participants a set of pictures like the one below.


Each time he showed such a picture, Asch asked which of the bars on the right was of the same length as the one bar on the left. Participants had to state their answer out loud in the group. However, Asch made sure that all but one of the group members were conspirators, whom he had all ordered to give the same wrong answer. The only real, unsuspecting participant had to give their answer after all the others. To his surprise, Asch found that a disturbingly large number of people in this situation gave a wrong answer themselves. It led Asch to conclude: “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.” In some cases, people’s reason to give a clearly incorrect answer was that they thought the group was right. In other cases respondents apparently were afraid of seeming different than the rest or didn’t want to cause any trouble.

It’s not difficult to transfer these findings to our own subject. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that many people feel deep down that there is something wrong with the food they eat. They might believe it’s okay to kill animals for food but also believe that those same animals should at least “have a good life.” Or they might believe it’s not worth killing an animal for food at all. But when all these people constantly see around them that eating meat (or animal products) is treated as normal, it is hard to even believe in that vague feeling of discomfort they may have, and it becomes a lot harder to think that something really wrong is going on. Even as a vegetarian or vegan, as someone who’s really internalized the principle that it is not ok to eat animal products, you may have these small moments of doubt, wondering if you are actually seeing things right. The South-African writer and Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee attributes the following thoughts to his vegetarian character Elisabeth Costello:

“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. (…) Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”

In part because there’s still only a tiny minority of the people making a problem of meat eating or acting differently, most people don’t often consciously stop to think about meat eating as a moral issue. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, it is one of the major conclusions of the golden age of social psychology that “people take their cues on how to behave from other people.” To the question why most people eat meat, this is one answer that we can give: “most people eat meat because most people eat meat.”

most people eat meat

Hence, the importance of critical mass. Change requires numbers. We need enough people to voice their doubts, to show their concern, to not participate, to eat differently, so that others no longer get the idea that meat is natural, normal and necessary.

Congrats to all of you who are not afraid to think differently and stand out from the crowd!

*Watch this video to learn more about the Asch experiment.

24 thoughts on “Why most people eat meat

  1. I was surprised whit this article. I can’t believe you are capable to twist this research to make it fit into your square needs. It is propaganda, not science. Not everywhere in the world people can access to a non animal products alimentation, not everywhere in the world veganism is accesible to a family. Think for yourself pepole, look beyond your nose and help others to do it if you want to make a change. This is not the way. Regards.

    1. most poorer countries subsist on grains, seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables because they are less water and resource intensive. So then the place you’re talking about where vegansim is not accessible is Siberia or a really rich wasteful country that thinks meat is the best thing ever.

      1. Yes, Sona.. I am from Argentina, a country with a large culture of meat, and one of the first meat producers in the world. We are, in fact a rich country but not in a money way, but in natural resources. Unfortunately, we here don´t have that quality meat at hand, because it is exported to countries whose rich citizens pays a lot for an argentinian beef. So, as you can see, it is not a country matter, and we are not Siberia. If you only can look one side of the things, of course you will never understand that cultural changes are slow, that they depends on many things such as economics,social, enviromental, etc. To judge other people life, you have to walk on their shoes. So, come to a country like mine, get involved on political-economical-social conditions, and when you be able to make a change from overnight, I will support your conviction. Changes only can happen when you give the example, when your life is better and make you happy, and people look at you and wants to have the same. Changes happen when you love others and want to see them happy too and with that love and patience you show them the way.
        Regards from a rich wasteful country that produces meat eaten in countries which citizens are trying to spread veganism.

        1. Eugenia, you wrote, “Regards from a rich wasteful country that produces meat eaten in countries which citizens are trying to spread veganism.”

          It sounds ridiculous at first, but I agree wholeheartedly that this illustrates another important part of the equation. Your statement sums up a lot of the sheer craziness of the human race in my opinion. 🙂

        2. Why are you even here reading this stuff? To be contentious? If it offends you, there are many BBQ sites I’m sure.

    2. Maria, first of all, i’m not saying this is the only reason people eat meat. i just wanted to add a less obvious reason (social conformity) to the ones that are obvious.
      Secondly, i agree with you that it’s not that easy everywhere, and maybe i could have specified that this would apply to western audiences or places where people do have the possibility to change seriously change their diets.
      If you read a little bit more on this blog, you’ll see that i’m the last one to say that everyone-has-the-moral-obligation-to-go-vegan-right-now-and-if-they-don’t-they-are-assholes.

      1. Tobias.. I understood what you tried to set.. but if you look at the end of your article, in bold, you make a statement ” most people eat meat because most people eat meat”.
        I was not trying to disregard your point, wich is valid also if we speak about fashion, body image, social status, etc I was only trying to give another view about that. The research is not the first and will not be the last to expose that some humans try so hard to fit that they will sacrifice their own personal opinions, desires, tastes,etc, to do it. We all, in a certain way try to fit. Some are different in the way their eat, but same in the way they have to fit in their jobs, society, or family. I believe, same as you, in the critical mass, but it cames only with example, love and enough patience to share with others why what we think (do, believe, etc ) is the better way.
        Thank you for being respectfull with my opinion, I really apreciate it.
        Regards from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world!

          1. I am agree that people try to fit disregarding their own convictions. I just wanted to point that you illustrated your article with a statement that is vague, general and that should be used carefully.

  2. I wonder if someone has replicated the experiment more recently. The 50s in the US were a highly conformist era. I’m sure the results would hold, only maybe not be so strong. I would also like to see results broken down by age, sex, class. (Not asking you to research this T, just musing.)

    The other implication of this is the importance of small group learning, which is widely considered by educational and social change experts the most effective catalyst of behavioral change. Small groups can create “a new norm” for participants. So keep doing those vegan potlucks and discussion groups everyone – only make sure to invite nonvegans to them!

    1. i would assume today the results might be different compared to back then. though we can’t be sure. would be interesting to know… Anyway, I used the Asch experiment more as an illustration of a dynamic that’s certainly still going on, imho.

  3. Great post, Tobias. Reaching a critical mass is so important, and one of the ways to accomplish this is by persuading people that veganism is easy and will make them feel good. Because most people don’t want to put a lot of effort into it 😉

    1. ModVegan,

      How do you persuade people that its easy to dramatically change their diet, to avoid all the great restaurants in their area, to avoid their families cooking….often times being a big tradition in their family and the overall difficulty of following a rigid lifestyle regime in a culture that doesn’t support it?

      Culture doesn’t need “critical mass” to change, it changes slowly one-generation at a time. A given generation, especially as they get older, becomes increasingly fixed as the brain becomes less and less open to new ideas, etc (e.g., reduce plasticity as you age).

      1. If you get as sick as I did from eating dairy/meat products you would soon change your attitude towards vegans. Animal products cause cancer and arthritis, the list goes on. I am totally cured of really bad arthritis because I deleted dairy from my diet. I get around better then ever and feel younger in my 60’s than I felt in my 50’s GO FIGURE

  4. I think focusing on psychology, which will tell you about mechanisms, and not culture here trivializes what you’re actually dealing with. We aren’t dealing with some transient idea, like in the experiment, but instead the fact that we are born into a culture which codifies what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, what is moral, etc. This isn’t just herd behavior, but the very way our brains develop and accept the prevailing culture.

    Its not just that most people eat meat because most people eat meat but instead most people eat meat because they were raised in a culture that has normalized the consumption of meat, that plans its meals around meat, etc………this isn’t a single easily isolated concept but instead a tapestry of culture.

    The only examples of cultures that have given up meat….is when its been part of the cultures religious framework. The vegan movement, on the other hand, is trying to promote an ideology that is qausi-religious in a secular framework…..not a recipe for success. After all, what exactly is the overreaching core (secular) ethical and intellectual framework for veganism? There isn’t one.

    1. It’s true that this is much more complex than simple herd behavior, but I don’t think that’s what he was trying to say… However, the wish to fit in and the tendency to not question things if they are part of our culture do have an impact on wether or not a person chooses to go vegan or not, or even whether or not they think about it. And yes, it is true that there is some dificulties when you’re vegan, though not as much as many would think… But they’re there and I understand why people won’t just change right away, or even want to.
      I believe the core would be that we shouldn’t do unnecessary harm, or more precisely that taste is not a good enough reason to kill a sentient being, as you can get it without killing animals anyway. I don’t see what is not secular in that?

      1. I’m not entirely sure what he is trying to say but as stated it seems to be about herd behavior. While I’m sure herd behavior is a factor in people *changing as adults* in the sense that the more people you know that are vegetarian increases the likelihood that the individual will change it says little about how we got where we are today and what mechanisms make it persistent.

        The difference here has a big impact in how you’d think about activism too, that is, with the cultural model you’d want to focus on the current generation growing up as their ideals will form the basis of future society. But when you think of it as “herd behavior” you’ll tend to focus on adults…..people that are more of less culturally fixed. I think some groups have, partly, acknowledged this and such spending a lot of their effort on college students…….but you’d really have to go younger to be effective. Of course……this comes with some problems because people will view this as “brain washing” so the actions have to be covert in nature.

        The claim that its wrong to “kill a sentient animal for taste” is, in itself, secular…..but how are you going to justify it? That is where you’re going to run into problems. Also this claim isn’t consistent with veganism which forbids the use of all animals regardless of whether they are sentient. Also with sentience, its just not a well understood concept both in science and philosophy so what is and isn’t a “sentient animal” will have a significant gray area. In this the topic of “sentience” in veganism starts to remind me of vitalism.

        1. There is no overarching ethical or intellectual framework for veganism and there never has been.

          Donald Watson et al in 1944 had a mish-mash of concern for the fate of cows in dairy production, human psychic development, human health, the teleological march of humanity to justice, how we took a wrong turn when our ancestors stopped being frugivores (more teleology). Leslie Cross brought the “law of love”. Dinshah, ahimsa.

          Then, ofcourse, you have the advent of the philosophers – Singer’s utilitarianism, Regan’s deontology, and Francione – sorry, Francione is actually an amateur philosopher (MA only) and adds nothing new to Regan except clarity on the centrality of sentience.

          Meanwhile, you have socialist vegans, a variety of anarchist vegans, and the beginnings now of right-wing vegans. And the biggest group is the basic consumerist vegans.

          You have black vegans and the concept of decolonisation. You have the environmental vegans. And last but not least the health vegans.

          The only consistent thing in veganism is the diet. That’s it. That’s the peg upon which anybody can hang almost anything.

      2. “taste is not a good enough reason to kill a sentient being” – you know I trivialised the gustatory thing from ex-vegans and non-vegans until I saw the data from the Faunalytics study where one of the major reasons ex-veg*ns gave was dissatisfaction with the food, and one of the major requirements of those who said they were thinking of going back to veg*n diet was improvement with regard to the food, including taste. I think more thought should be given to the gustatory thing rather that vegans looking down their ethical noses at it.

        Actually, dissatisfaction with the food was a bigger reason than convenience, which is relevant here where getting more vegan products on the shelves is often discussed, and bigger than social issues, where seems relevant to this particular discussion.

  5. Peer pressure seems a convoluted reason for eating meat. When did this start? Did our ancestors routinely club anyone for not eating the deer? My mum would encourage me to eat the vegetables. No encouragement was needed for the meat.

    The only thing the experiment proves is thatq a dishonest person can make an honest person look stupid.

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