• Dorottya Szentkirályi

Cognitive dissonance theory: How can we eat meat and love animals at the same time?

Many of us had dreams of becoming vets as kids, having pets at home, taking part in the fight for animals’ rights in the beauty industry, and most of us are horrified when we see news of animal abuse. There’s one general reason behind these behaviors – most people love animals, care about them and consider them as feeling creatures.

How is it possible then that the majority of the afore-mentioned people consume meat every single day?

The concept, which explains this phenomenon, is called the meat paradox. The meat paradox is based on the simultaneous dislike of hurting animals and the joy of eating meat. It lays on the foundation of Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory.

Cognitive dissonance is the unpleasant state of mind and growth in the levels of arousal that occur when the attitude and the behavior of a person differ. Particularly, it happens when both the attitude and the behavior are important to us and are related to our self. In this case, the attitude is love and care towards animals, while the behavior is eating them.

When we feel hunger or thirst, we have strong incentives to elicit the unpleasant state; the same happens as we experience cognitive dissonance. It is an uncomfortable tension, that we are motivated to resolve, the so-called cognitive dissonance reduction theory.

How do we cope with cognitive dissonance?

We can follow different strategies to reduce cognitive dissonance, such as changing our thoughts or behavior. Importantly, it seems that the defining factors on which strategy will activate are accessibility and motivation. Certainly, in most cases, people tend to take the undesirable routes of reducing dissonance – by means other than behavioral change. These are often the easiest and the most convenient ways to get rid of the unpleasant feeling.

In the following paragraphs, we will discuss both the conditions for the dissonance to occur, as well as the different strategies people take to reduce it.

First required condition to elicit cognitive dissonance is we have to perceive the behavior as not matching our attitude. For example, say, eating meat is inconsistent with our love towards animals, and the belief that they are feeling creatures that are capable of suffering. At the same time, there are ways to avoid the dissonance, such as to deny the negative consequences of our actions by failing to recognize that the meat was once an animal. It doesn’t have to be true ignorance necessarily, but tacit denial would be more than enough. English language (as many others) serves this very well, calling pig pork and cow beef. Another well-working strategy to trivialize our behavior by saying ‘I only eat good quality meat that are produced from happy and well-kept animals – they did not suffer while alive’. Importantly, these self-convictions will not lead to behavioral change and recognizing the mismatch between our attitude and the behavior is the first step to eliciting cognitive dissonance.

The second condition is the recognition of the fact that we chose that behavior. This condition is equally important to engender the feeling of dissonance. Failure to do so will provide room for conscious or unconscious ways to avoid it. For instance, if we are obliged to do something or, perhaps, we receive a high reward, we do not experience cognitive dissonance. So, simply reframing the situation to seem like we are not responsible for our actions can reduce the dissonance. Thoughts like: “I don’t have a choice, my family eats meat, so I have to as well” do not serve the purpose well.

Third condition is experiencing the physiological arousal, an unpleasant tension. In order to experience the feeling of cognitive dissonance fully, one must experience the physiological symptoms, as well. Methods to temper or rid ourselves of these symptoms leads to the lessening effect of the dissonance on our behavior. One such method could be consumption of alcohol/drugs, which, as most of us would know, reduces stress and unpleasant feelings.

The last condition is realizing that there is a connection between the experienced discomfort and the inconsistency between our behavior and beliefs. Although it is easy to attribute the feeling of agitation or irritation to the wrong reasons, it is important to introspect and make the right connection – acknowledging the true reasons to ourselves.

Take a second to acknowledge the afore-mentioned strategies that one may employ in order to comfort oneself and, as a result, reduce the cognitive dissonance. Importantly, these strategies will ultimately make us circumvent the main goal – changing our behavior for good. In the example mentioned earlier, this would mean that we would love animals but we would still love to eat them.

However, if all the conditions are met, you can only reduce dissonance by actually changing your thoughts or actions, since cognitive dissonance is based on the controversy between the two. The dissonance disappears permanently when the attitudes resonate with the behavior.

But how does that actually look like?

Of course, most of the time, it takes less effort to change our attitudes than our behavior, so it’s easier for us to modify the thoughts, not our actions.

Even though changing our attitude is easier, modifying behavior is probably the most evident form of reducing cognitive dissonance; it is also a very effective one. It is most likely to happen if we declare our intentions and attitudes to the public, because one would feel pressured to stay true to them in the eyes of the public. A person who does not adhere to the publicly proclaimed beliefs is usually called a hypocrite – a ghastly term that people avoid being associated with. It is called, not surprisingly, the hypocrisy effect.

Of course, cognitive dissonance and its reduction does not only happen to meat eaters – but to all of us in everyday situations. From decision-making to taking part in awkward initiations when we go to a new school, cognitive dissonance is ubiquitous and is part of the human psychology. And although it has some unwanted effects, it is inevitably useful to us.

Cover Image Credit: Getty Images

References and Further Readings

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Bastian, B. (2010). The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite, 55(1), 156–159.

Smith, E. R., Mackie, D. M., Claypool, H. M., Csertő, I., Danczi, C., Ehman, B., & Pántya, J. (2016). Szociálpszichológia. Budapest: ELTE Eötvös Kiadó.

Steele, C. M., & Southwick, L. (1985). Alcohol and social behavior: I. The psychology of drunken excess.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(1), 18–34.

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