When you plow through a plate of Buffalo wings or down a massive cheeseburger, you're probably not thinking about the chickens or cows that made your meal possible. That's much to the dismay of animal activists everywhere, who pitch vegetarianism and veganism by attempting to appeal to meat eaters' concerns for animal welfare. Now, a new study confirms what many of the PETA set long believed—the meat industry hopes to exploit this dissociation from animals to makes us more willing to eat their chicken, pork, and beef.
A series of studies from the University of Oslo that were published in the journal Appetite found that people are more willing to eat meat when it's processed and presented in a way that distances the product from its animal origins. Researchers showed participants in the study a whole chicken, drumsticks, and chopped chicken filets and asked them how much empathy they felt for the animal. They also showed them two whole roast pigs, one with a head and one without. Unsurprisingly, the participants reported feeling less empathy for the chopped chicken and headless pork.
"The presentation of meat by the industry influences our willingness to eat it," said Jonas R. Kunst, one of the study's authors, in a press release. "Highly processed meat makes it easier to distance oneself from the idea that it comes from an animal."
Packaging and advertising also play a role. When shown two ads for lamb chops, one of which featured the image of a lamb, the photo of the fuzzy baby sheep caused participants to avoid eating its meat. Even the words "beef" and "pork" complicate our relationship with meat—participants were less willing to eat both when they were listed as "cow" and "pig" on a menu.
This suspension of disbelief regarding meat has been called the "dissociation hypothesis" by those who have studied this phenomenon in the past. The Oslo study is the first to test the hypothesis, and it seems it's real. We don't want to admit our steaks and brats were once cuddly farm animals.
The study's authors suggest that their research might help governments limit meat consumption.
They also make note of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who slaughtered every animal he ate for a year to better understand his role as a meat eater. That's certainly one way to get in touch with your inner carnivore, but most people won't go that route.
Good luck telling any red-blooded American to put down their cow sandwich and pick up an axe.