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Cognitive​ dissonance and modern decision making: the’meat paradox’

It would be fair to assume that most people are against violence, inhumane living conditions and cruelty. Some people that cold those opinions also, unfortunately, consume factory-farmed meat. However, it is not a phenomenon only prevalent amongst meat eaters. Such decision making is shared in other scenarios as well. Some would argue that fair working conditions are a fundamental human right, yet choose to shop brands that are known not to meet basic worker safety standards.

Cognitive Dissonance theory refers to contradicting situations, actions and opinions. Such circumstances create mental discomfort and alterations in one’s previous beliefs, or behaviours are made to reduce said discomfort.

Accessibility and money have the most significant influence of changing the relationship between actions and moral decision making. The ‘meat paradox’ teaches us a lot about modern-day decision making: the origin of the product is forgotten as money, and other business marketing tactics act as a buffer to relieve the feeling of discomfort that the consumer would initially had when purchasing said produce. When making a purchase, consumers look out for what’s accessible to them. First and foremost it has to be within their budget, and only afterwards moral consideration comes in place. Thankfully, successful marketing strategies make this part of decision making easier: ‘free range’ or ‘grass-fed’ suggest fair, cruelty-free living conditions. This creates a belief that the purchases are unrelated to the horror stories that are heard about the meat, dairy and egg industry.

Once we understand the meat paradox, we can understand other forms of moral decision making.

What is ‘meat paradox’?

Dr Julia Shaw in her recent book ‘Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side’ refers to research conducted down under by Brock Bastian and Steve Loughnan, when defining the ‘meat paradox’. The ‘meat paradox’ refers to the conflict that consumers have – knowing the reality of animal suffering, their consumption of meat and their strive to be a ‘good human being’. How can I be a good person and also eat meat?

Because such conflicts threaten our identity, often social structures are established that ‘excuse’ such actions. ‘Meat-eating is a social thing, humans have done so for centuries, or I need to get all my nutrients, where would I get protein from otherwise?’ – are usually the most common ‘excuses’ for justifying the consumption and the ignorance of the origins of those products.

As with any decision that challenges morality, excuses need to be made to justify the behaviour and excuse a repeated occurrence. When it comes to the ‘meat paradox’ these are usually mainly done post hoc – this is so that the individual does not feel like ‘a bad person’.

Because taking into account the origin of meat would make a person uncomfortable there are only two ways of action available for a consumer to relieve the internal conflict: change their belief system or justify the action.

Jula Shaw wrote for the BBC: “We stay in the dark, to protect our delicate identities, to maintain the illusion that we are consistent and ethically sensible human beings.”

Because large groups of people share this dissonance (the majority of people in the Western countries eat meat), Bastian and Loughnan argue that this normalises said actions and the inappropriateness of such immoral actions disappear.

The reality is that as long as something is perceived as ‘normal’ amongst large groups of people and as long as immoral actions are justified, there will be no change.

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