The four Ns of meat justification

Jared Piazza on psychological barriers to becoming and staying vegan.

16 November 2020

It’s hard to know exactly how many vegans there are in the world, not because researchers haven’t tried counting them, but rather because ‘being vegan’ is a fuzzy concept. Are you a vegan if you avoid consuming meat, fish, dairy, eggs, but you eat honey or gelatine? Are you vegan if you avoid eating animal products, but you own a wool coat or silk scarf? For purists, the answer is clearly no and no, while others take a more flexible, inclusive view.

Whatever definition you use, it is clear that vegans make up a small percentage of the world’s population. If you look solely at the rate of demand for vegan products within, say, the past five years, it would appear that veganism is on an upwards trajectory. For example, according to British Takeaway Campaign, vegan takeaways increased 388 per cent between 2016 and 2018 in the UK. According to another report, European meat substitute sales grew 451 per cent between 2014 and 2018.

By contrast, if you look at the percentage of individuals within each society reporting to be vegan, we see a slightly different story. Vegans still make up a small fraction of the population. According to the Vegan Society, in 2018 there were approximately 600,000 vegans in the UK – that’s just over 1 per cent of the UK population. Although the percentage is small, it still represents some growth. For example, in 2014 about 0.25 per cent of the UK reported being vegan. In other words, in four years, the number of vegans more than quadrupled in the UK.

The reason we don’t see the same level of growth in individuals as reflected in the market has partly to do with the nature of vegan products. Plant products are not just for vegans. Everyone eats plants, and plant-based meat and dairy alternatives keep getting tastier and more innovative. Furthermore, many omnivores consume plant alternatives for reasons other than lifestyle, for example, allergies to dairy.

Given the great boom in vegan sales and plant-based eating within the past five years, we might wonder why, in many countries, vegans still represent less than 2 per cent of the population. Here, I discuss some of the psychological forces that stop people going (and staying) vegan, and consider how things could change in the future.

Barriers to becoming vegan
In 2015 my colleagues and I published findings that showed that there are four principal justifications given for why it is okay for humans to kill and eat animals. (We focused on meat, but the principles can be extended to other animal products.)

Our participants argued that eating meat is Nice, Normal, Necessary, and Natural. Inspired by theorising from Melanie Joy, we labelled these reasons the ‘Four Ns’. The Four Ns represent four distinct psychological barriers to adopting a vegan, vegetarian, or more ‘animal-friendly’ (Pescatarian, reducitarian, flexitarian, etc.) diet. I will discuss each N in turn.

Eating meat is Nice
Probably the most fundamental barrier to ditching meat is that people enjoy it so much. It’s not easy to quit something when you enjoy it. Arguably, if meat and animal products, like cheese, weren’t so appetising, humans probably would have ditched them a long time ago. In this sense, Nice (i.e. the pleasure derived from animal products) may represent the primary barrier to plant-based eating.

Pleasure forms a barrier to change because when we are emotionally invested in a practice, we are quite clever at finding reasons to support it. We seek out and embrace information that will confirm what we want to be true, and we avoid, disregard or interrogate information that could challenge it.

This motivated use or disuse of information applies to the way people approach the issue of eating animals. My colleague Steve Loughnan and I showed this in a series of studies that examined the way our appetite for meat can interfere with our judgments about how animals should be treated.

British meat eaters either learned about the amazing cognitive abilities of a certain animal, or they learned that this animal was not so smart. For some participants, this animal was a pig – an animal that they regularly ate. For others, this animal was either a tapir from South America or a fictional animal (‘trablans’) discovered on a distant planet – animals that they had never eaten. Participants read that the animal was mistreated by industrial farmers and slaughtered for meat, then they assessed the wrongness of this practice.

Our results highlight how people’s appetites can interfere with their moral judgments. Participants thought it was worse to slaughter animals they did not eat (tapirs and the fictional animal) than to slaughter animals they regularly ate (pigs). This was true despite rating the three animals as equally intelligent.

Moreover, only for pigs did participants fail to take into account the intelligence of the animal when evaluating the acceptability of their mistreatment. Participants recognised that pigs are smart, yet they did not allow this information to inform their moral judgments, as it did for tapirs and trablans. In short, their appetite for pork led them to ignore relevant information that otherwise would have awakened their condemnation of pig slaughter.

Eating meat is Normal
Eating animal products is such a normative part of society that most people on a daily basis fail to cognitively link the meat on their plate with the animals slaughtered.

This dissociation between meat and animal is reinforced by the invisibility of the chain of meat production in modern society. Animals are slaughtered away from view. A relatively small group of labourers are responsible for the production of 318 million tonnes of meat (not counting fish and seafood) that we consume globally each year. At market, animal flesh is further processed into sellable units that little resemble the animal it came from.

Studies by Jonas Kunst and colleagues show that when you draw people’s attention to the animal origins of meat, their concern about slaughter increases and their appetite for meat momentarily declines. People don’t like to dwell on the animal origins of their meal, and modern meat production is strategically designed to help consumers forget.

Likewise, restaurants and grocery stores are designed to cater to the desires of consumers. Because most people eat meat, there is little opportunity for consumers to publicly reconsider their behaviour when all around them menus, advertisements, and aisles are massed with animal products. Rarely do people question what is normal and widespread.   

Eating meat is Necessary
A common myth that is still pervasive today is that humans need to eat meat to get essential nutrients for their health or, if you are a body builder, to grow muscle. Indeed, this was the most frequent justification for eating meat that we observed in our study.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many people still believe that meat is either the exclusive or primary source of protein for our bodies. Meat companies take advantage of this myth. You may have noticed that restaurants often label the meat options ‘proteins’ – a strategy that would be lost on elephants and gorillas, who grow massive exclusively on plants.

Sadly, in industrialised countries, most people eat more protein than they need, due to general over-eating. Yet, people living outside these countries often struggle to achieve the recommended daily intake. Today, dieticians widely agree that plant-based diets are perfectly healthy. The key to a healthy diet, whether it involves animal products or not, is to eat a variety of foods and get enough calories.

Eating meat is Natural
The final barrier to ditching meat is the belief that it is natural for humans to dominate animals. It can be comforting to believe that humans are on top of some natural food chain. We have the power and it is our privilege to wield that power.

Research by Kristof Dhont and Gordon Hodson has shown that there is a direct link between the way people think about human supremacy over animals and the attitudes people have towards human inequality. People who tend to think it is our right to dominate other species also tend to believe that there is natural order to society, with some individuals at the top and others at the bottom.

In other words, viewing the world in terms of natural hierarchies not only fuels our beliefs about human supremacy over animals, it can perpetuate inequality within society as well.

Staying vegan: The social challenges of being vegan
Overcoming the Four Ns is no small feat, and once these perceived barriers have been surmounted, there is still the issue of retention. Research suggests, more often than not, fledgling vegetarians and vegans at some point backslide or abandon their commitments altogether.

A 2014 Humane Research Council study found that about 88 per cent of the US population had never attempted a vegetarian or vegan diet. Yet, among the 12 per cent who tried, only 2 per cent had stuck with it. In other words, 5 out of 6 Americans who gave up eating animal products eventually lapsed.

The reasons people reported for returning to meat had less to do with a resurgence of cravings (‘bacon nostalgia’) or concerns about their health. They had more to do with fitting in. The most common reason ex-vegetarians and vegans gave for returning to meat had to do with a lack of belonging to a supportive group (84 per cent), and 63 per cent reported feeling like they ‘stuck out from the crowd’. By contrast, only 38 per cent of former vegetarians and vegans reported craving meat as their reason for returning. Concerns about health were not reported much at all.

Thus, the challenges associated with going vegan are quite different from the challenges people face staying vegan. While it is difficult for meat eaters to imagine that they would ever lose their appetite for meat, most vegans and vegetarians over time report few cravings. Quite the contrary, many vegans and vegetarians develop feelings of disgust at the sight, smell and thought of eating meat or other animal products like eggs. For them, meat is a potent reminder of animal slaughter, mistreatment and death. 

The real difficulties vegans face maintaining their lifestyle are social. Vegans can struggle coordinating their lives with others and fitting into a world where meat eating is the norm. There are also unfavourable stereotypes about what vegans are like. Furthermore, because vegans are seen as a group that rejects prevailing norms, they can be viewed as an irritant to society.

If you spend any time on the internet you have probably encountered a number of unflattering memes about vegans. Some of these memes are playful and can be quite funny, while others are in poor taste and outright offensive. Generally, these memes portray vegans in one of three ways: as hypocrites (e.g. ‘Claims to be vegan, but wears leather shoes and belts!’), naïve (e.g. ‘Vegans still drink water… that’s a fish’s house you sickos!’), or self-righteous (e.g. ‘How do you know if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!’).

Underneath all of these portrayals are two assumptions: that vegans are morally motivated and critical of others. This is a problematic combination for vegans. Studies show that people who act contrary to prevailing norms are often cast in a negative light. People who challenge the status quo – like suffragettes in the early 20th century – can annoy others, especially if they are seen as criticising societal values.

Many vegans are outspoken about animal slaughter, but this is not true of all vegans. Nonetheless, all vegans face the social challenge of navigating their relationships with nonvegans. The simple act of choosing not to eat animal products can be read by others as an unspoken criticism of theirown behaviour, even if vegans make overt claims to the contrary.  

A potential vegan future
We have looked at some of the barriers to going vegan. Yet, much less is known about the process of becoming vegan. Scientists know a lot about what motivates currentvegans –namely, animal welfare, health and environmental concerns. We know much less about how people become persuaded by these reasons, and what kinds of environments encourage and support vegan commitments.

A few studies have examined the process of becoming vegan retrospectively, that is, by having current vegans reflect on their past trajectories. Though based on recollections, these studies suggest that many individuals restrict their consumption of animal products in stages. Overnight conversions to veganism appear less common.

The typical trajectory is for someone to become progressively more restrictive over time, with some inevitable backsliding along the way. For instance, a person might first reject red meat for health reasons, and years later reject white meat for ethical reasons. Later still, they may refrain from consuming fish, eggs, and/or dairy in an effort to more closely adhere to their convictions.

It’s possible that in the near future we may see more people reporting conversions to veganism. Today the internet makes it easier than ever to find and share easy-to-cook vegan recipes. Moreover, innovative food products, like the Impossible Burger, which uses heme extracted from soy leghemoglobin to mimic the iron flavour of meat, are changing the world in powerful ways.

Indeed, one possible path to a vegan future places great faith in our power to innovate.

In the future, new food technologies, such as cultured meat and acellular agriculture, will make it easier for people to enjoy the pleasure of meat without the need for animal slaughter. This growth of innovation could start a chain of events leading ultimately to widespread uptake of plant-based and ‘slaughter-free’ products. Once that happens people will no longer have to worry about sacrificing their pleasure when considering the ethics of animal slaughter. Furthermore, as viable alternatives proliferate, vegans will become more common, thus changing the way we look at vegans as a group.

While this vision of the future may be closer than we realise, for now vegan advocates must continue to wrestle with the major barriers that consumers face when considering what to eat. Vegan advocates must convince the world that animal products are not necessary, are not the only nice foods, and do not have be the societal norm. There is nothing written into our nature compelling us to eat animals.

-  Jared Piazza is a Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University.

Key sources

Dhont, K., Hodson, G. & Leite, A.C. (2016). Common ideological roots of speciesism and generalised ethnic prejudice: The social dominance human-animal relations model (SD- HARM). European Journal of Personality, 30, 507-522.

Joy, M. (2010). Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows: An introduction to carnism. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.

Kunst, J.R. & Hohle, S.M. (2016). Meat eaters by dissociation: How we present, prepare and talk about meat increases willingness to eat meat by reducing empathy and disgust. Appetite, 105, 758-774.

Piazza, J. & Loughnan, S. (2016). When meat gets personal, animals' minds matter less: Motivated use of intelligence information in judgments of moral standing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(8),867-874.

Piazza, J., Ruby, M.B., Loughnan, S. et al. (2015). Rationalizing meat consumption: The 4Ns. Appetite, 91, 114-128.