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Why the Meat Paradox Causes Cognitive Dissonance for Millions of People

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A recent review paper has revealed the reasons behind a piece of cognitive dissonance that many of us perform daily, called the meat paradox. At the heart of the paradox is this conflict: most of us like animals, but will happily eat animals housed in cruel conditions.

Cognitive dissonance

While repeated surveys show that the majority of us care about animals,  reducing the number of  animals we eat is not just a target for food animal welfare – it will also help combat the climate crisis and improve our health.

But even with all these good reasons for not eating meat, roughly 95% of people chow down nonetheless. The study was published in the Social Psychological Bulletin.

Sarah Gradidge, a doctoral candidate at ARU in Cambridge, UK was the study’s first author. Gradidge noticed that while many people she knew readily shared cute pictures of animals and regarded themselves as animal lovers, they still ate meat. Gradidge’s subsequent review of available literature of the topic turned up 73 papers that had attempted to quantify the reasons behind the meat paradox.

The review looked at both the “triggers” and “strategies” of the paradox. A trigger is essentially an event that prompts someone who eats meat but cares about animal welfare to recognize the doublethink involved in their position. This isn’t, says Gradidge, a very pleasant feeling. “The most common triggers were, for example, reminding people of the animal origins of their meat. That can just be very triggering, because people tend to, for example, when they eat meat, forget about the animal’s existence, to forget that the meat comes from the animals. As soon as you remind people that meat comes from animals, this can really trigger that discomfort, because it basically stops their ability to dissociate. It reminds them of where it [the meat] is coming from.”

Taking a direct approach to the meat paradox

The discomfort that comes from the meat paradox forces the people experiencing it into one of three routes, says Gradidge’s paper: changing their moral values – to decide they don’t actually care about animal welfare, altering their behavior to eat less or no meat or by performing a behavior called disengagement. The latter involves using mental tricks to minimize the discomfort felt when feeling cognitive dissonance, and Gradidge explains that these fall into two categories – direct or indirect.

Indirect approaches essentially involve trying not to think about the issue, pushing any images of chickens in cramped cages or barns to the back of your mind. The use of terms like livestock also come under this banner, acting as a barrier between what’s on your plate and a living, breathing animal.

Direct strategies, instead, confront the paradox head-on. “You’re really trying to justify your meat consumption,” says Gradidge. Some of the strategies identified in the paper include:

  • Denying that animals can feel pain.
  • Denying that animals have intelligence, sentience or consciousness.
  • The four “N”s – this strategy involves categorizing meat consumption as one of four things – normal, natural, necessary or nice.

Vegetarian men face stigma

Gradidge’s review also highlighted some key differences between individuals in terms of how they tried to get around the meat paradox. “We basically find that men tend to be more resistant to reducing their meat consumption than women, and they tend to use different strategies. Men tend to be using more direct strategies, whereas women tend to be using more indirect strategies,” she explained.

This increased reluctance to cut down on meat among men likely explains the gender split in vegan and vegetarian diets, Gradidge explains – 63% of vegans are women. “Research has found that when males, for example, reduce their meat consumptions or convert to veganism that they're subject to a lot of stigma, perhaps more than women,” says Gradidge. Male stereotypes of strength being intrinsically linked to meat consumption (something which no one told this guy) are another key factor.

A less meaty future?

Could Gradidge’s findings be used to identify better ways to encourage the consumption of less meat? While Gradidge says more research is needed to find an exact approach, a direction that public health experts, environmentalists and animal activists could take is to cut down on judgmental language. “We need to understand that people perhaps aren't responding in negative ways because they don't care," Gradidge added. "Actually, people may be responding in negative ways because they care too much; this is what's making them feel uncomfortable.”

“It's about trying to find a way to talk about these issues that encourages behavior change in a positive way and doesn't make people respond in a negative way. We absolutely need to talk about these issues. But we need to do it in a way that is non-blaming,” says Gradidge. She further explained that  taking the wrong approach can lead to people further sticking their heads in the chicken feed or even, in rare cases, doubling down on their meat consumption to express their displeasure in being told what to do.

Even if you don't give a hoot about the more than 250 million chickens in the US alone each year that live their entire existence in A4 paper-sized cages, a brief look at the news emphasizes that  reducing our meat consumption is an essential goal for the world’s growing population. Three quarters of rainforest loss is driven by animal agriculture, the vast quantities of processed meat we eat are making us fat and sick and zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, are likely to become more common if agriculture continues on its current industrialized path.

Tackling the meat paradox will be a necessary step towards cutting down our meat consumption and Gradidge intends to undertake more research into better defining the paradox and our reactions to it. But given the intense reactions she has documented in her review, how have people responded  to her own paper ? “The response, I suppose, has been a bit meta in some ways in the sense that obviously we are talking about the meat paradox, and then when we talk about the review, you actually see the strategies themselves coming out. Some people, sadly, just by talking about the paradox, may actually be responding with the various strategies that we're talking about because the article itself may act as a trigger of cognitive dissonance,” she concluded.  


Gradidge S, Zawisza M, Harvey AJ, McDermott DT. A Structured Literature Review of the Meat Paradox.
Social Psychological Bulletin. 2021;16(3):1-26. doi:10.32872/spb.5953