The meat motivated mind: an interview with Dr. Jared Piazza

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Dr. Jared Piazza

Dr. Jared Piazza is a lecturer at Lancaster University, UK. His research focuses on moral decision making, including how people think about the moral value of animals. Recently, Jared and his colleagues published the papers Rationalizing meat consumption: The 4Ns, in the journal, Appetite, and When meat gets personal, animals’ minds matter less in Social Psychological and Personality Science. I heard Jared speak at the Care Conference in Warsaw in July (2016) and afterwards had an interview with him. We talked about obstacles to animal advocacy. This post is a bit longer than my usual ones, but I’m sure it will be worth your time.

Vegan Strategist: Jared, why are there so few vegans in the world? We’re still at a mere one percent.
Jared Piazza: There are different possible answers to that question. Is it because people don’t care about animals? I don’t believe that. Americans, for instance, spent over sixty billion dollars on their companion animals in 2015. I don’t believe that they care only about dogs and cats, and not also about farm animals. Is it because people don’t know what’s happening to farmed animals, and that all we need to do is educate them about the facts? I don’t think that’s the answer either. The movement has been raising awareness about the issues for decades.

So the real answer is…?
The best answer I can give is that people really love meat, and they want to keep eating it. This makes them less receptive to moral arguments about farm animals. If you can address the motivation to consume meat, then people may be more receptive to animal advocacy messages and behavior change. Appetite is something that develops very early in life, and that remains quite fixed after that. Many people are neophobic (afraid of new things) when it comes to food. So it’s not easy to change appetite. The upside of this seems to be that once people do make the switch, many of them can lose the previous appetite rather quickly and permanently. This is particularly true of people who adopt ethical reasons for abstaining from meat. If you’ve been vegan for a long time and have trouble understanding the alluring power of meat, I can recommend the book Meathooked, by Marta Zaraska.meat movivated mind

You did research into two particular obstacles to animal advocacy: moral reactance and motivated reasoning. Please tell us more.
Moral reactance boils down to people not wanting to be criticized or told that what they are doing is unethical. Simply raising the issue of vegetarianism – or even just refraining from meat while dining at a table of meat eaters – can elicit this kind of reactance, as people may feel there’s an implicit moral reproach in what you’re saying or (not) doing.
people recruit reasons and thoughts 2Motivated reasoning is about post hoc justifications. Rather than being open to the full range of evidence, most people want the conclusion of their thinking to be that they don’t need to make a change. So they recruit reasons and thoughts that justify their preferred conclusion, reasons and thoughts that don’t require a change. When you are in a “motivated state” you are motivated in a certain direction. You are personally involved, and you will steer your reasoning so that it can justify your preferences – preferences which are shaped by your habits and appetites. By contrast, if you first create a context in which there is no external pressure to change, people may be more open to critically consider the full range of perspectives (e.g., consider that eating meat is unnessary.).

That’s not really great news for those of us who believe in the power of rational thinking…
Motivated reasoning is certainly not rational or objective reasoning. And it has some consequences that can be problematic. People will modify their views of animals so that these beliefs are consistent with their appetite for meat. This is called belief alignment. Research has shown that if you remind people that they eat animals, people will think less of animals (in terms of their mental capacities) than when they are not reminded of that fact. People will also reduce their moral concern for animals when they think of animals as food.

And then there is wilful ignorance, which you tested with an interesting thought experiment.
Yes, wilful ignorance is about the fact that, when people are in a motivated state, they may avoid or discount “annoying” information that otherwise would be relevant. In one study, Steve Loughnan and I gave people a scenario where, at some point in the future scientists discover a new animal species (the ‘trablans’) on another planet. When we presented the trablans as intelligent, people were more concerned about the animal than when we presented it as not so smart. We saw that there was a clear correlation between the perceived intelligence of the trablans, and people’s moral concerns for it. But then we did a second study in which we also put pigs and tapirs in play, telling people that these were intelligent animals too. What we saw was that in the case of pigs, which – unlike the tapir and the trablans – people eat, the intelligence of pigs had much less effect on people’s moral concerns for them. In other words, the fact of the pigs’ intelligence was strategically ignored.

How Jared and his colleagues picture the imaginary "trablans".
How Jared and his colleagues picture the imaginary “trablans”.

What can we do about all these obstacles, as advocates for animals?
One thing that we can try is to avoid motivated reasoning. This is about getting to people before they need to defend their choices, that is, before they are in a motivated, defensive state to produce post hoc rationalizations. This might be achieved by getting people to think that they are already making steps toward meat reduction – by pointing out all of the tasty non-meat foods they already eat and enjoy. Indeed, this is how I moved from being an omnivore to a health vegetarian to a vegan. I first started reducing my meat consumption because my mom scared me about the carcinogenic properties of meat, so I started reducing my meat intake. Over time not eating meat became part of my identity, which made me more receptive to information about factory farming and animal liberation. Another strategy might be to create ‘safe’ environments where people can question their own reasons for eating meat, rather than having members of the moral vanguard tell them why eating meat is wrong. This may be easier said than done, but psychology may offer some helpful tips.

One clear finding from the psychological literature on persuasion is that people don’t like to think they are being persuaded (see persuasion resistance – VS), so don’t try to openly persuade them. Don’t say “I’m in this group and you’re not but you should be”. If as an omnivore, I’m afraid that you’re going to citicize me and I’m afraid you don’t want to compromise, then why would I engage with you if I know there’s only one direction this is going to go in? Maybe we should experiment more with giving people the opportunity to persuade themselves. In my lab we have found that if you have omnivores write a counter-attitudinal argument – for example, have them try to convince a friend why it is not necessary to eapersuadedt meat – rather than a pro-attitudinal argument (e.g., why it’s necessary), people are more receptive to compassionate messages about farm animals and are more willing to consider vegetarian meals. The idea here is that people can be convinced by their own arguments, more so than compelled by outside influences, even when these arguments go against how they originally think. So as animal advocates we might consider more ways to get people involved in the process of animal advocacy, thinking critically about animals and meat, rather than guilting people about eating meat.

Maybe us vegans could present ourselves as even worse omnivores to meat-eaters, and let them take the opposite role?
An interesting idea!

If rational arguments can only take us so far, what about emotional messaging?
I think positive emotions can be particularly useful. One thing that comes to mind is the motivational power of seeing a baby animal. Baby animals are cute. All mammals share a “baby schema”: the physical properties of young animals (big eyes, round face, small nose) that can evoke nurturing, caring emotions and behavior.

Pictures of baby animals may evoke a certain tenderness in people.

One study showed pictures of kittens and puppies to participants (or adult cats and dogs) and then had them play the game of “Operation” (a game that requires careful, fine-motor movements, as you try to remove body parts with a stable hand so as not to get ‘buzzed’). Participants shown baby animals performed better at the game, suggesting they were being more “careful.” Also, when their grip was measured with a grip strength instrument, it was apparently less hard. This made me wonder if being exposed to baby farm animals invokes more tenderness, a feeling that may be at odds with an appetite for meat. Certainly animal advocacy groups implicitly think this is the case: many ads and leaflets I’ve seen are replete with photos of baby farm animals. We conducted a few studies to test this idea and found mixed evidence for it (we’re currently writing up the results). Exposure to images of cute farm animals does seem to evoke tenderness and reduce appetite for meat, but mostly among women, and when directly linking the animal to the meat. The effect was quite small but consistent, so tenderness seems to be a useful emotion for animal advocates to target, at least among women.

What about invoking negative emotions?
I think trying to evoke physical disgust about meat (for instance saying that it could carry e. coli, is rotten or whatever) might be effective. I wouldn’t recommend evoking disgust toward the killing of animals however. Disgust at cruelty is not a transformative emotion: the reaction of disgust is to repel or get away from the disgusting object (be it blood, guts, or whatever). I think anger is a more transformative emotion under these circumstances because it involves appraisals of injustice, and an impulse to right a wrong. But you have to be careful with anger too, because there’s a fine line between anger and guilt. You need to put the responsibility squarely on the producers, not with the consumers. If people feel responsible for the injustice, the impulse will largely be to pass the blame, rather than seek justice.

Can guilt ever work? Many vegans say they were convinced by other vegans giving them the truth straight up. What do you think?
Perhaps sometimes. But I think guilting generally fails because the person being guilted disagrees with the charges that they are doing anything wrong, and there are too many justifications easily on hand to dismiss the charges as valid.

You also did research on Melanie Joy’s three N’s of justification: eating meat is necessary, natural, and normal.
Yes, my colleagues Steve Loughnan, Matt Ruby, and I were interested to find out if Joy’s three Ns – that eating meat is necessary, natural, and normal -were the main justifications people gave when defending their right to eat animals. All three of us had read Melanie’s wonderful book, and wanted to put her theory to the test. So we recruited omnivores, a group of U.S. adults recruited online and a separate group of undergraduate students recruited at the University of Pennsylvania. We simply asked them “Why is it OK to eat meat?” and we categorised their responses. To our delight, we found evidence that people actually offered the three Ns that Melanie had written about. They also offered a fourth N – eating meat is nice (i.e., pleasurable, tasty, etc.). This is an odd argument to defend one’s right to do something harmful, but people offered it quite frequently nonetheless. Thus, we arrived at the “4Ns” of meat eating justification. Necessary was the most widespread N, but Natural and Nice had the highest level of endorsement, suggesting to us that they may be the least malleable of the four.

What are some of the other things that you think are worth looking into, researchwise?
I really think we don’t know a lot about why some people do end up as vegetarians or vegans. We know more about the obstacles people face toward meat abstention than how some people find their way to vegetarianism and veganism. What psychological characteristics or strategies enable such lifestyle commitments? Could anyone “go vegan” or is there something in particular that sets vegans apart? I’m particularly interested in better understanding how some people can be moved by the suffering of farm animals to such a degree that they quit meat eating “cold turkey” (pardon the metaphor), never again to succumb to the temptation of meat. I’m also interested in better understanding how so many people can be exposed to the same information about mass animal suffering and react with horror but simply do nothing about it.

To finish, I’d like to hear some recommendations you have for activists or the movement.
I guess my first recommedation would be to do your best to avoid the moral reactance and motivated reasoning when discussing the issue of eating meat with people. This is not always possible, but put yourself in their shoes. How would you react if someone suggested to you that something you really enjoy doing and have been doing most of your life was immoral? immoralPerhaps this is something that you never considered to be a problem before and brings you daily pleasure. Do you think you would be receptive to their message at first? Or would you question their arguments? Would you immediately stop what you have been doing all your life, or would you immediately think of ways in which what you’re doing is perfectly acceptable and not problematic? Once you have made the conversion to not eat meat, it is easy to forget what it is like to see things from the other side – from the perspective of the meat-eating majority, who are wondering what all the fuss is about.
I’d also recommend to advocates to be inclusive and welcoming, and not to give up. We need people to think they really can make a change. We need to empower people, not only with an awareness of how meat production is destroying our world and ruining lives (lives that truly matter), but also give them an opportunity to imagine other ways of viewing the world, particularly how they view themselves, so they can reason through the arguments in a less defensive, self-preserving manner. I think we may have greater success that way.

Thank you, Jared, for this interview!

31 thoughts on “The meat motivated mind: an interview with Dr. Jared Piazza

  1. “I really think we don’t know a lot about why some people do end up as vegetarians or vegans.”

    I think that some of us are born with a higher capacity for empathy than others. It is clear to me that I naturally have more than the vast majority of people. A lower level of selfishness logically comes along with this.

    That’s why I suspect that the only way to greatly reduce cruelty is to advance the state of meat/egg/dairy analogues until they are at least as appealing (taste, texture, etc.) as animal products, less expensive, more healthful, and readily available/convenient.

    1. The levels of empathy seems to make sense. I think that the person’s ability and tendency to not hide it when they disagree with the majority might be another factor. Maybe that’s just me, but I like to stick to my own ideals and to question every beliefs and attitudes society has. Having the maturity to understand that you’re not always right and that it’s fine to make mistakes, as well as the belief that bad behavior stems from ignorance, misunderstanding and suffering, and not from character, might help (because in that case, being told that eating meat is bad wouldn’t be interpreted as ”you’re a bad person because you eat meat)

      1. This was a really great article and I’ll definitely try these techniques.

        I would say that I have more empathy than others and as a data analyst, I’m aware of fact-based decision-making and am constantly researching and truth-seeking. I was a huge omnivore. I transitioned to vegetarian then to vegan while dating my boyfriend. He is otherwise very compassionate (we call ourselves “empaths”) and he’s very introspective. I’ve filled him with lots of knowledge on factory farming, health, environment, etc and yet he still eats meat. It blows my mind!

        I plan to one day raise my children as vegan which he supports. Perhaps then, it will be on the forefront of his mind. I believe he is disgusted by the practices but chooses not to think about it.

        1. have you thought about asking him to do like a 21 day vegan challenge or something. maybe you can ask that for your birthday or anniversary or something 🙂

          in any case, wish you much happiness with your life together 🙂

  2. This work is interesting…..but its all focused on individuals and how they respond to various information. That would, of course, be of interest to some advocate trying to convenience individuals of some ideology……..but what reason is there to believe that you’re going to transform society in that fashion? When has that ever worked?

    In any case, there really seems to be two distinct approaches here with much different outcomes in terms of how you’d promote change. Namely the vegan model where you’re focused on individual actions and converting individuals to some ideology or a systematic cultural model where you seek move society as a whole overtime by shifting overall cultural beliefs, habits, etc.

    Lastly the reasons why “people” eat meat hinges on their particular culture and sub-culture. By studying students at the University of Pittsburgh one is primarily getting the perspective of white middle-class Americans….not “people”.

  3. Mr Toad is right.
    This interview is all about one-on-one discussion about eating meat or not and trying to make someone “Go Vegan”. But you could also have another strategy and talk to the person as a citizen (and not a consumer) and talk about justice.

    For me, it’s very effective: I talk with them about speciesism, ask them if they know what it is, what they think about that, if it’s just to discriminate against non-human animals, etc.
    I NEVER ask them about changing their behaviour (going vegan) so they’re always OK to discuss and exchange ideas and points of view. And most of the time, after five minutes talk, the people ask me shyly: “Are you’re vegan ?”

    In the end, they concluded for themselves that if speciesism is wrong, eating animals has to stop as well. And everyone knows if an idea comes from yourself, you’re more willing to change.

    1. It’s a good way to get people to think without getting their defences to rise. Simply hearing the word vegan can do that to a lot of people

  4. I actually just made a video on this topic 😉 A lot of people won’t even call themselves vegans when they are – just because they don’t want to be associated with veganism. Of course, we all know that veganism isn’t the problem, it has a lot more to do with vegans themselves.

    This interview is fascinating – I’m very interested in the psychology of these issues, so I got a lot out of this. If you give someone a chance to make excuses, they will. And If they feel attacked, they will also make excuses. Like Dr. Piazza says, people are more convinced of their own arguments than they are of yours! I think it’s important to give them room to even enter the place where they can start thinking critically about the issue.

    I’m a little biased because I went vegan after a vegetarian friend asked me what duck tasted like. I started to really think about it and I convinced myself without a word from her! She didn’t know for over a year the impact her words had on me. But I really think it’s because she wasn’t arguing with me, she was just asking me a question that made me let my guard down and start to really contemplate animal suffering.

    Strange how things work.

    1. ModVegan,

      When you say “we all know that veganism isn’t the problem”….you mean *vegans* know? That is, of course, isn’t surprising….. But blaming people “themselves” doesn’t make sense because people are part of systems and those systems can alter how people behave and think. This phenomena is well know……. So, as such, you have it backwards….the individuals are largely good and its instead the system, namely veganism, that is to blame for what you see. People are acting their worst wen they are acting as part of their social system…..not when they are having one-to-one conversations outside of their social system.

      1. I guess I would disagree – I think you can definitely blame people within a system. If members of a political party misbehave, is it because there’s a fundamental problem with the party? Or are they just individual jerks?

        1. Obviously you will have cases of individual misbehavior….but when you see the same sort of misbehavior happen again and again with members of some social systems….you should be looking at the social system and not the individuals.

          1. These “same sorts of behavior” are just basic human psychology. They aren’t unique in any way to Veganism. You see the same progression referred to over and over again in different contexts – like the 5 stages of grief. Vegans often get stuck in “anger”, but that’s far from unique (for example, people learning about labor conditions in foreign countries often feel the same way).

            1. ModVegan,

              Right this is all derived from human psychology but the point is that people behave differently when acting in part of some social system rather than as individuals. I believe Tobias posted an example of this a bit ago, namely, a study where people were inclined to give a wrong answer just because the people around them the wrong answer.

              You want to blame individual vegans…my point is that you should really be looking at the social system (i.e., veganism) that motivates the behavior.

              1. I don’t think it’s veganism in itself that is the problem, as veganism is more of a philosophy than a system… I suppose you’re talking about the vegan community (the social system), wich seems to be also what ModVegan is talking about, and it is true that the big, more visible part tends to be pretty angry and aggressive. There is work that needs to be done on that part.

                1. Any Nomous,

                  Veganism is “a philosophy” only in the very crude social sense in which case it being “a philosophy” isn’t exclusive of it being a social system….rather its part of the system.

                  I’m talking about the vegan community and the underlying ideas of the community. My point is that the ideas lead, in the aggregate, to a variety of undesirable outcomes and blaming the individuals will just create a hostile environment and is ultimately unproductive. ModVegan is talking about the same outcome….but she is blaming individuals for it rather than looking at the social system. Social systems *always* impact individual behavior in some way….ideally you want a social system that promotes constructive behavior of the individuals of the system.

                  But I guess I shouldn’t care…..I prefer to see veganism marginalized as little more than a sub-culture and the “movement” is heading fast in that direction. I’m just still really amazed that so many people still think its productive to even think about and talk about veganism…

                  1. Ahh, Mr. Toad. Your real motivation becomes clear. I wasn’t getting whatever you were trying to convey, despite re-reading your posts. Now I know that you simply don’t understand why people are passionate about vegan living, why we talk about it, why we hope others come to realize why it’s so important, and most importantly for your information, why veganism is growing. Three main reasons: animals, environment, health. People have different ways of making those points, but they are too compelling for people who care about any one of those, let alone all three.

      1. I definitely believe in the power of reason – but I think people need to be approached in a way that works with their emotions if we want to use reason effectively 😉

  5. Wow… Great interview and equally fantastic comments by the readers who are obviously all vegan. Perhaps Dr Piazza should also study vegans.
    Also agree we should be targeting society as a whole, the laws. Smoking was totally acceptable and encouraged just a few decades ago. Today society frowns upon it. Where I live in Australia, smoking is almost banned in every public area… Parks, beaches, balconies.

    1. Here too, Veronica, on California’s Central Coast. I think vegan living will go even faster than anti-smoking because of our global connections. There are so many compelling reasons to be vegan, and it’s getting easier all the time. More support groups, more recipes, more alternatives.

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