Of Mice and Children: An Interview with Luke McGuire

Cover photo credit: Caroline Hernandez

Dr Luke McGuire, University of Exeter

Luke, could you briefly introduce yourself?

I’m Luke McGuire, currently a Lecturer at the Department of Psychology at the University of Exeter, where I have been working since 2020. Prior to that I studied for a BSc and MSc at Cardiff University, followed by a PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. After my PhD, I spent three years working as a postdoctoral research fellow on a Wellcome Trust/ESRC funded project examining inequalities in STEM representation in the UK and USA.

My research interests fall broadly within the realm of social and moral development between childhood and adolescents’ attitudes regarding their LGBTQ+ peers, STEM gender inequality, the development of social class identity, and of course, how young people come to think about our relationship with non-human animals (particularly regarding food). In my spare time I can usually be found cycling across Dartmoor in search of stone circles.

In your paper, The development of speciesism: Age-related differences in the moral view of animals, forthcoming in SPPS, you explored differences in the way children (9 to 11-year-olds), young adults and adults evaluate the morality of using animals as food. What perspectives inspired this research and what were some of your key findings?

A lot of my thinking in this area comes from my training in Social Domain Theory, a perspective that argues that our reasoning about the decisions we make involves us weighing up moral (e.g., “how much harm does this cause?”), social conventional (e.g., “what do other people normally do?”), and personal concerns (e.g., “how much autonomy do I have in this situation?”). Learning how to coordinate these different concerns is a key developmental task, and it struck me that all three are relevant in terms of what we eat. Choosing whether to eat meat involves thinking (or not) about harm to animals, conventions about food, and the personal autonomy that is granted to our dietary choices. So, I was really interested in how some of this would play out in children when thinking about food.

At the same time, we were driven by the amazing work that has already been done in social psychology and philosophy on speciesism and the meat paradox (I can’t name all the authors we’re indebted to here without leaving someone out). As readers of this blog likely know, we think about animals in strange ways, by loving some and eating others. This in part seems to be driven by speciesism (the belief that humans have some greater inherent moral worth than animals), categorisation and motivated-cognition processes (once we see an animal as ‘food’, the information we choose to pay attention to about its sentience changes).

In our study (conducted with my collaborators Sally Palmer and Nadira Faber), we’ve shown that children (9-11-years-old), as compared to adults, are less speciesist, believe farm animals ought to be treated just as well as humans and pets (i.e., they are harm averse), and perceive eating meat as less morally acceptable. The bottom line here is that we are not born as motivated meat eaters but construct this world view somewhere between 11 and 18 years old.

One interesting finding from this work was that children categorised farmed animals differently than adults – for example, were more likely to categorise them as “pets” than “food.” Why do you think children view farmed animals differently than adults, and how might adults be encouraged to see farmed animals more like children do?

Children were more likely to classify farm animals as “pets” than “food”, compared to adults. Photo credit:  Юлія Дубина

Yes, it’s super interesting that children were much more on the fence about whether a cow, a pig, or a chicken could be classified as food or as a pet. We’ve still got a lot to learn about the relationship between categorisation, knowledge about food systems (e.g., what happens in a slaughterhouse), and motivated cognition. I have a strong belief that humans are, for the most part, motivated to reduce harm. Nobody wants to harm an animal for no reason (case in point: the recent furore directed at Kurt Zouma for kicking a cat). At the same time, we are conflicted because many people like to eat animals. The conflict here can only possibly arise once you understand that an animal must die to make the burger you are enjoying. I suspect that this knowledge coming to the fore in adolescence leads to a cascade of categorisation, speciesism, and motivated cognition processes. I am currently working with an MSc student who is examining this question, so hopefully more to come on that soon.

In terms of shifting ourselves back to seeing farm animals as closer to friend than food, I think it may already be too late in adulthood to take a full step back. Although, we can learn a lot from people who become vegetarian or vegan in adulthood – what was the underlying cause that took them back to thinking of farm animals as friend over food? For me, breaking this chain must start in youth. More open dialogues about how food is produced, along with equal placement of plant-forward options in schools would go a long way to beginning to break down speciesism and maintain the categorisation of farm animals as animals, rather than food.

Your findings support emerging research that suggests that children are less speciesist than adults. What does your work tell us about speciesism and its development, for example, does it point to an underlying cause of children’s reduced speciesism?

Absolutely, I think it’s fascinating that our work aligns with that of Matti Wilks, Lucius Caviola and other folks in this area. Matti, Lucius and colleagues showed that children 5-9-years-old don’t prioritise human life over animal life within moral dilemmas. We’ve shown that, on a speciesism scale, 9-11-year-olds score lower than adults. So, based on these two studies, we might reasonably argue that speciesist thinking emerges between 11 and 18-years-old. This goes back to the point above about food systems knowledge. I think many of us can remember realising that the food on our plate was an animal, but really knowing what’s happening in the ‘black box’ between farm and plate is something we tend to keep hidden from children. By adolescence, you are deemed old enough to receive this cultural knowledge. The open question is whether this then kicks off that chain of events.

What do you see are important directions for our field, particularly with regards to child development and compassion towards animals? Are there any unanswered questions you would like to see researched more?

I really hope that more researchers in the field of social and moral development start to see this as an important and worthy issue that deserves our full research attention. There is a dedicated core of brilliant researchers working on this issue with adults, but less attention has been paid to this from the world of moral development, which I find puzzling. It’s not an overstatement to say that understanding how we come to think about nature (including our relationship with non-human animals) is fundamentally connected to our survival as a species. We need more interdisciplinary research (as well as in collaboration with practitioners) to understand how we come to think about animals: the role of parents, the impact of cultural norms, the pragmatics of food education, how to make alternatives affordable and accessible – my list goes on and on. To steal from Diane Di Prima: “No one way works, it will take all of us shoving at the thing from all sides to bring it down”.

It’s not an overstatement to say that understanding how we come to think about nature is fundamentally connected to our survival as a species.” -Luke McGuire

Photo credit: Daiga Ellaby 

If you were given the authority to add a topic to the National Curriculum, to be taught in primary or secondary schools across the UK, what would this be and why?

This was the hardest question here by far! My Dad was a teacher for many years and has long advocated for a Scandinavian model of education that focuses on social development first, years before starting to learn about long division or grammar. I’m not an educational expert by any means, but I think there’s a lot to be said for spending the first 7 or 8 years of your life just learning how to communicate and empathise with others. We know that theory of mind abilities (being able to understand how others are thinking and perceiving the world) are related to moral decision making. Perspective taking and emotional understanding are the key to the whole thing. So, that’s less of an addition to the curriculum and more of a total overhaul of the educational system – maybe don’t hand me that authority just yet!

How can our readers best get in touch with you?

Thanks very much for giving me the chance to answer these brilliant questions. You can email me (l.mcguire@exeter.ac.uk) or find me on twitter (@lukemcguirex). There’s a lot of work to be done here and I’d love to speak to anyone keen to collaborate – thanks PHAIR!

Authors: Victoria Simpson and Jared Piazza

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