Cognitive Dissonance Paper

There is great power in each individual’s hands, and something puzzling to many scholars, researchers, and activists is that the same hand that can lovingly pet the family dog can stab a piece of beef for dinner. Over the past century, animal agriculture has become highly industrialized and hazardous for the health of all of earth’s creatures.  It has been happening for decades and many of us pay little mind to it, but our planet and its beings are in critical condition; we are the ones who caused it and we are the only ones who can fix it. Human beings tend to be selfish at times, which may contribute to our ability to cherish one animal the way we do our own kin while serving the other for dinner, but it is time we close our mouths, open our eyes, and listen to the cries for help of the billions of farm animals across the globe. 

Image: William Moreland

There are so many reasons that point toward human beings reducing their consumption of animal products and emerging options available for anyone in the general public to make use of when reducing meat consumption. Animal agriculture is known to be the second-highest contributor to harmful greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, according to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu whose words are documented by climate change writer Jeff McMahon, “agriculture and land-use generates more greenhouse gas emissions than power generation.” All data, psychology-based and health-based, encourage the avoidance of animal products, yet as Loughan, one of the authors of The Psychology of Eating Animals states, “vegetarians seldom exceed 10% of any national population—most people consume meat…the primary motivation omnivores report is that meat tastes good.” Though we have evolved with meat being the staple in almost every meal, it is the 21st century, and as the innovative, creative species that we are, we must do better, we have done better. There are options available to the general public, something that many scholars including Steven Chu, believe to be the answer: “biotechnology, [specifically] fake meat—highlighting the brands Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat” (McMahon, 2019). These groundbreaking brands of imitation beef taste almost identical to traditional meat. Even with all the advancements made, people are still either hesitant or completely set on what is familiar to them. Though the need to cling to what is safe and familiar aligns with human nature, it is something of the far past, a method that was important to humanity in prehistoric times when sampling something new could result in death by a poisonous berry plant or an attack by a carnivorous creature. And, another important piece of human nature is our humanity, and our ability as intelligent beings to think further out and care for those lives apart from our own, something of our past, present, and future. This aspect of human nature indicates we have the capabilities to find a balance between pleasing ourselves and caring for our fellow earthlings. A researcher from the Research Group of Industrial Microbiology and Food Biotechnology in Belgium, Frédéric Leroy, states at the beginning of his argument that “[a] primordial facet of human-animal interactions relates to animal killing for meat production.” Leroy writes the word ‘primordial’ in order to stress that this is no longer how we must lead our lives. Today, our minds must be open and exposed to what is new and uncertain, because only then are we able to make the advancements that are so renowned today. If Thomas Edison had quit because of uncertainty or fear, we would not have the light bulb today. 

Evidence that meat is harmful to not only our planet due to its contribution to the greenhouse effect, but our bodies as well, is abundant, but due to the cognitive dissonance human beings have evolved towards meat, we have to work through the blocks we built ourselves. According to Loughan and his research, “meat can also elicit disgust, arguably because it poses a higher risk of carrying dangerous pathogens than plant material.” The health drawbacks of meat consumption in large quantities are obvious to anyone exposed. Though the facts in this argument are simple and straightforward, our brains somehow allow us to get away with eating huge amounts of meat while remaining almost one-hundred percent guilt-free. It is a mysterious tool we have evolved, cognitive dissonance, a coping mechanism we evolved that allows us to rationalize the slaughter of animals for our own usage. This needs to be taken apart and then rebuilt after tweaking because though it has proven to be an effective tool, it has been effective in the wrong ways, making us build a wall between us and what animals on farms face. 

Image: Doruk Yemenici

Though some critics argue that we befriend cats and dogs because we share a closer cognitive capacity with them than we do with other animals, that argument is falsely rooted. In fact, cows have best friends and many of them get separation anxiety. As well, mother pigs sing to their young to help them sleep. Pigs stand above dogs when it comes to intelligence, having the cognitive capabilities of a 3-year-old human being. Social psychologist and author Melaine Joy writes that “[w]e love dogs and eat cows not because dogs and cows are fundamentally different – cows, like dogs, have feelings, preferences, and consciousness – but because our perception of them is different. This ties back to cognitive dissonance, which has conditioned us to disconnect a farm animal such as a cow from having a conscience, making our consumption of them a lot easier on our own conscience. In a study performed by Dr. Boyka Bratanova, a researcher at Melbourne University, it is evident that the “categorization [of certain animals] as food…was sufficient to reduce the animal’s perceived capacity to suffer”. Because we are able to love cats and dogs but accept the slaughter of billions of animals in agriculture since we only view them as food, we must reconnect our dissociated thinking and realize the truth in our actions and what they entail for beings other than ourselves. Subconsciously, we are already morally against consuming animals, which is the reason cognitive dissonance evolved in our brains in the first place. According to Bilewicz and Imhoff, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, people naturally morally disengage from the process of animal slaughter, even if they do not know of the cruelty animal farming entails. The authors further this point they make by describing the use of “euphemistic language about words related to meat consumption (e.g. process instead of slaughter; pork instead of pig),” how human beings prefer “meat that does not resemble animal anatomy” in its appearance, and that slaughterhouses are located far from residential areas.” The bottom line is that we know this is morally wrong, unsanitary, and unsafe for all, and we are, deep down, against this behavior. The work that must be done is admitting the cruelty we partake in to our conscious selves and realizing that though it may be difficult to be exposed to the behind-the-scenes of the farming industry, animals are physically and emotionally put through that every day of their lives. 

Image: Olga Andreyanova

Now arises the argument that some people do not care, and actually enjoy subjecting animals to forms of cruelty, though they may not admit it to others or themselves. As stated by Dhont, a Ph.D. of psychology, and Hodson, in their journal, right-wing adherents, have dominant ideologies and view vegetarian lifestyles as a “threat to traditional norms and dominant carnist ideologies.” When RWAs are already very competitive in their beliefs and a threat to their ideologies only makes them hold their beliefs closer. Because these RWAs have an underlying competitive nature, they also enjoy dominance, and with animals, that comes very easily. It is difficult to break through to people with this ideology and though their beliefs sound very extreme and even cruel, many people are RWAs, only they do not know it because many of the symptoms are underlying or they may be in denial when confronted. But, every human being by nature has their humanity and will be able to find it in themselves to care for another being, though it may be harder for some to extract than others. It is our job to continue bettering ourselves as human beings throughout our lifetimes and the realization that cows and pigs are the equals of cats and dogs is an important part of that. 

Our love for cats and dogs evolved with us, as they were not a primordial feature of our lives. Animals we consider pets such as cats and dogs were not our best friends since the very beginning, but as time progressed, our bonds with these animals grew and our humanity towards animals seen on farms today shrunk. Building off the argument that we should remain true to what is comfortable for us, we should not be farming animals in the manner in which we do. Today, we “engage in a diet that requires them to be killed and, usually, to suffer” (Loughan, 2014), but in our earlier days as a species, we ran smaller more humane farms where animal farming was not as cruel or as much of a contributor to climate change. Though it is more difficult to do so now with the ever-growing human population, the key is not to revert back to our primal ways, but to move closer in that direction in a more sustainable and intelligent fashion than we did centuries ago. This is the same behavior we must have towards eating meat. The argument is not to avoid meat, but to reduce consumption on an individual level, thus amounting to a large decrease in demand for meat, leading to fewer animals needing to be farmed, and a significant decrease in the greenhouse effect. 

We have evolved many traits that have been helpful to us at some point in our time as species, but with the passing of time, some of those tools lose their utility and sometimes even become detrimental. We are at the point in our time on earth where we must accept the responsibility to make up for the wrongs we have done to this planet and all of its inhabitants. Being the most intelligent species on earth gives us the power for both great harm and great destruction, and the choice is in every person, but not for themselves, rather for the greater good.  We are capable of realizing all animals are alike and not discriminating based on how we have been conditioned. It is our time to act right, and the amazing, empowering thing about this subject matter is that the power is not only in the hands of the highest officials but in those of every individual. Each of us, having the gift of being a human being, has the capacity to mold our minds into something that may stray from the norm, but that may save the most lives. In the same way we must be the ones to bring down the empire of industrialized farming we created, we must be able to take apart the wall of cognitive dissonance we have constructed to tell ourselves a dog should be loved but a cow should be slaughtered because that in itself is the answer to diminishing industrialized farming practices. 

Image: Sam Carter


Bilewicz, M., Imhoff, R., & Drogosz, M. “The humanity of what we eat: Conceptions of human uniqueness among vegetarians and omnivores.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, Mar. 2011. 

Bratanova, B., et al. “The effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals.” Appetite, 57, 2011.

Dhont, K., & Hodson, G. “Why do right-wing adherents engage in more animal exploitation and meat consumption?” Personality and Individual Differences, 64, July 2014.

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

Leroy, Frédéric, et al. “Animal Killing and Postdomestic Meat Production.” Springer, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 9 Feb. 2017. 

Loughnan, S, et al. “The psychology of eating animals.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, Apr. 2014. 

McMahon, Jeff. “Meat And Agriculture Are Worse For The Climate Than Power Generation, Steven Chu Says.” Forbes, Apr. 2014.

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