Why do we say beef, pork, and mutton, instead of cow, pig, and sheep? How many of us can pet an animal, then kill it and eat it? Research published in the journal Appetite suggests that people like meat, but they can only stomach it if they do not associate it with a living creature.

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For many people, the more the meat looks like the animal, the less they feel like eating it.

Underlying this “meat paradox” is the idea people can keep their uneasy feelings about eating meat at bay by averting thoughts about the animal, and the fact that animals have thoughts and feelings.

This is referred to as a disassociation hypothesis, and it leads to euphemisms for meat such as “buffalo wings” and “hot dogs.”

Animal rights activists and philosophers have argued that the way meat is presented and discussed encourages a greater consumption of it.

They have also claimed that the only way people can manage to eat meat is by dissociating themselves from the animal.

Now, researchers have tested the hypothesis empirically, and their results suggest it is true.

Colleagues Jonas Kunst and Sigrid M. Hohle, of Oslo University in Norway, carried out five experiments in Norway and the United States to examine a total of more than 1,000 people’s reactions to different presentations of meat.

The first three studies focused on the processing of the animal, while the last two gauged reactions to the language used to indicate meat.

  • Study #1: The authors presented participants with chicken at different stages of preparation: A whole chicken, chicken drumsticks, and chopped chicken fillets.They evaluated how the participants associated with the animal and how far they empathized with it.
  • Study #2: Subjects saw images of a roasted pig, with and without a head. This time, the authors measured how the participants associated with the animal, and also their feelings of empathy and disgust. They asked if participants would rather eat the meat, or if they would prefer a vegetarian dish.
  • Study #3: Participants saw two advertisements for lamb chops. One showed a living lamb, and the other did not. Seeing the picture of the lamb left people less inclined to eat the chops, and they had more empathy with the animal.
  • Study #4: In a restaurant menu, the words “pig” and “cow” were used instead of “pork” and “beef.” The team found that participants were less willing to choose the meat, and that the words aroused feelings of empathy and disgust.
  • Study #5: In the U.S., the word “harvest” is commonly used instead of “slaughtered” or “killed.” The researchers found that talking about “harvesting” decreased people’s empathy with the animal, as if it were a plant.

The authors conclude that processing meat reduces people’s empathy with the animal, enabling them to distance themselves from the idea that it is really an animal. The less recognizable it is, the less empathy and disgust people feel, and the more willing they are to eat it.

Most of the participants were meat eaters, but some already found it difficult to eat meat.

All the participants were in the habit of disassociating meat from the animals. Some of them already found this hard to do, and these participants were more sensitive to the changes in presentation and terminology.

The authors note that the study does not reveal whether the more sensitive people normally eat less meat.

However, the conventional presentation of meat means that any sensitivity these people have is less likely to be activated.

The presentation of meat by the industry influences our willingness to eat it. Our appetite is affected both by what we call the dish we eat and how the meat is presented to us.”

Jonas Kunst

Kunst is not a vegetarian, but he reports that the studies have increased his awareness of meat consumption.

The study could have implications for public health in countries where people eat more meat than is recommended for healthy living. Processed meat, in particular, has been linked to diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Kunst suggests including pictures of animals in advertisements for meat or in places where meat is consumed. He points out, however, that due to financial interests, this may not be a popular idea.

The authors point out that lower meat consumption is also more resource-friendly.

Celebrities who have spoken up for the animals include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who, for a year, consumed only meat that he had slaughtered himself. He said: “Many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat.”

Singer Paul Mc Cartney, who is a vegetarian, has said: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”

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