By Jared Piazza

Cover image by Mary Winchester

Does the sight of raw meat gross you out? Does your stomach turn when you smell meat being cooked? If so, you are probably someone who rarely eats meat or hasn’t eaten meat in quite some time. You might remember a time when you didn’t mind the sight or smell of meat, or perhaps it has been so long that it’s impossible to imagine. Or perhaps the sensory aspect of meat doesn’t bother you much at all — but the thought of what meat represents (violence towards animals) is off-putting.

What keeps people from avoiding meat? Is disgust the principal driver, or might it be something deeper, linked to the moral concerns people have about the treatment of animals and the violence that meat represents?

Are you disgusted at the sight of raw meat? Why might this be? Photo credit: tommao wang 

Let’s explore these questions by taking a deep-dive into the literature on disgust and meat avoidance. Disgust is an important emotion for animal advocates to understand because it plays an important role in the context of food choices, and meat in particular. But research on disgust also has the potential to confuse, due to the plurality of claims that theorists have made about what disgust is and what it does. Here, I consider some of those claims and try to bring some clarity to the role of disgust in meat avoidance and, ultimately, animal advocacy.

What is disgust?

Most theorists would classify disgust as an emotion, which means that it is “about” something in the world (it has a reliable set of “eliciting situations”) and it has an identifiable bodily-sensorial signature, which reliably co-occurs with the perception of these situations.1 The typical bodily sensation that accompanies experiences that English-speakers tend to label “disgust” are unpleasant feelings of nausea, gagging, loss of appetite, and the urge to distance oneself from the noxious stimulus (during intense experiences of disgust one may involuntarily recoil from the stimulus).2

Disgust is highly focused on the mouth. If you want to amplify your feelings of disgust, simply apply Rozin and Fallon’s principle of “oral incorporation“: think about ingesting whatever it is that is eliciting your disgust (yuck!). Darwin posited that there is a unique facial expression associated with “disgust” that involves a gapping mouth and protruding tongue — the “sick face3, arguably, a precursor to vomiting, designed to block noxious substances from entering.

Humans are not unique in their experience of disgust. Other mammals, like mice, display oral-inhibitory behaviours similar to humans when presented with distasteful substances or unpleasant odours. The unique thing about disgust in humans is its complexity – i.e., its range of eliciting situations. Many different things seem to evoke disgust in humans from bad smells to bodily secretions, gory scenes, even aberrant sexual acts (e.g., incest).

One idea, aimed at potentially unifying these diverse observations, is that disgust, in humans, is a disease avoidance mechanism. Researchers have observed that most disgust elicitors relate to things that are pathogen vectors (i.e., transmit disease) or that resemble pathogen vectors4 (e.g., chocolate in the shape of faeces can elicit disgust).

Yuck! Disgust may have evolved to alert us to pathogen risks. Photo credit: Nancy Hughes 

There is some support for this idea. Curtis and her colleagues compiled a set of paired images, matched for visual appearance but differing in their disease relevance (e.g., a rag with a bloody smear vs. a rag with a blue-chemical smear). Over 77,000 people from different countries rated the photographs on “disgust”. Overall, the images depicting a disease risks were rated more disgusting than the disease-neutral images. The study did not measure perceptions of disease, so the researchers can only infer that this was the reason the disease-relevant images were judged more disgusting. Nonetheless, the findings align with the idea that disgust, at least in humans, may be a protective response to the presence of pathogens.

Is disgust a moral emotion?

What about the claim that disgust may have an even broader role in humans as a protector not only of the body, but of the “soul“? This is the controversial idea that humans can feel disgusted not only about offensive odours and oozing orifices, but towards “offensive” acts. A stronger version of this argument claims that disgust felt towards immoral acts, is, in some manner, influencing a person to condemn the acts.

It is certainly true that disgust can be activated in a moral context. Most moral situations are highly multi-faceted. Consider, for example, a person’s moral reaction to a violent video game like Mortal Combat. A person might feel disgusted by the copious amounts of blood and gore. They might worry that young children will be motivated to imitate the violent movements. They might be angered by a store’s willingness to sell the game to minors and they might disapprove of its distribution.

What is far from clear is whether disgust elicited in the context of morally-relevant scenarios5: (a) cause a person to condemn the act; (b) are co-extensive with condemnation of the act; or (c) are incidental to the condemnation (i.e., something else in the scene might be eliciting the disgust other than the thing that is causing the disapproval). There is an additional complexity: people can use the language of “disgust” (including the disgust face) to metaphorically communicate their moral disapproval or anger6. Thus, when researchers primarily rely on expressive language to measure the presence of disgust in a moral context there is ample opportunity to misconstrue disgust and anger.

Currently, the evidence cannot reliably discriminate between options (a) and (c) — the jury is still out regarding whether disgust has a causal role in promoting moral condemnation. While (b) might seem like a plausible contender, recent studies by myself and Justin Landy showed that the average person rejects the idea. This research found that most individuals believe that the experience of disgust is separable from moral evaluation, whereas this is not true for the emotion anger that we experience when we are offended or perceive injustice.7

In one study, participants learned about a protagonist who witnessed two men kissing in a park. They further learned that the protagonist either experienced disgust or anger when watching them. Participants who learned that the protagonist felt disgust thought it was plausible that the protagonist did not morally condemn the act–they were just uncomfortable with two men kissing. By contrast, participants who learned that the protagonist felt angry, found it much less plausible that the protagonist did not also morally condemn the act. Thus, disgust is not assumed to indicate moral disapproval in the way that anger represents disapproval. 

How we view disgust matters for advocacy

It may seem pedantic to focus on the question of disgust’s role in moral judgment, but how you answer this question has important consequences for animal advocacy. If you think that disgust causes people to condemn actions, and you wish people to condemn animal slaughter, then you will focus on trying to induce them to feel disgust about animal slaughter. However, if you recognise that people condemn animal slaughter because they are angered by its injustice, then you will put your resources elsewhere. Likewise, if you recognise that certain people avoid meat because they find aspects of it disgusting, and not because they morally disapprove of meat production, then your strategy will look different.

It may seem pedantic to focus on the question of disgust’s role in moral judgment, but how you answer this question has important consequences for animal advocacy.

Below, I argue that disgust constitutes one strategy that animal advocates may wish to capitalise on in their goal to encourage meat reduction. If you want people to feel disgust towards meat and avoid eating it, your strategy could highlight the pathogenic-content of meat, i.e., its link with disease (what I call the “disgust route”). If you want people to be outraged about meat, morally condemn it, and continue to avoid it, then your strategy might highlight the injustice of meat (what I call the “moral route”).

Both pathways can lead to meat avoidance, but the disgust route may be more effective in some contexts, e.g., early on, when the moral arguments about the harm and injustice of meat production are not compelling or when advocating on behalf of animals that are widely thought to lack moral status (e.g., fish, crustaceans, insects). By contrast, when it comes to long-term meat-avoidance maintenance, the current evidence seems to suggest that a disgust-only strategy is likely to be insufficient. People need to also cultivate moral convictions for opposing meat.

What people find disgusting about meat

Historically, human beings have had an equivocal relationship with meat. Meat is a dense source of nutrients, but it is also a common source of pathogens (“meat borne diseases“, including viral, bacterial, prionic, and parasitic diseases) and toxicants. Humans are omnivorous. Unlike “specialist” organisms, such as gorillas or koalas, who eat a narrow-range of foods or specific foods (eucalyptus leaves, in the case of koalas), humans can eat a wide variety of foods. This broad menu enabled our ancestors to exploit a wide range of food ecologies, but it also posed an “omnivore’s dilemma” because not all foods are safe. Humans developed several strategies for managing this dilemma. One potential adaptation is a sensitivity or wariness towards foods, like meat, that pose a reliable disease risk.

Most societies have rules regarding which meats are eaten and how they should be prepared. Photo credit: Benjamin Ashton

Several lines of evidence support this idea. Meat is a prized food in many societies. Nonetheless, Fessler and Navarrete observed that most cultures have taboos or customs around how meat should be prepared, when it can be eaten, and which meats can be consumed. They also found that pregnant women exhibit an elevated sensitivity towards experiencing disgust towards foods like meat during their first trimester, the organogenesis period of pregnancy when the foetus is particularly vulnerable to infection.

It also appears to be easier to condition distaste for meat products than plant products. Tyber and his colleagues presented Dutch individuals with images of meat products, plant products, and beverages. They paired the various foods with images either depicting pathogen cues (e.g., an infected toe) or no pathogens (e.g., a building). Then, participants viewed the food images a second time, without the paired images, and evaluated them. Participants who viewed the meat products paired with pathogen cues judged them less appetising than participants who viewed the meat products paired with the neutral stimuli. By contrast, appetites for plant products and beverages were unaffected by this conditioning. In other words, only appetite towards meat was negatively affected by a newly formed association with pathogens.

Humans appear to be sensitive towards meat because of its potential to transmit disease. However, there may be other reasons people come to form a distaste for meat. People can be grossed out by the appearance of meat, particularly red meat when uncooked and oozing blood, and because of meat’s ideological link to death and decay.

Hamilton explored the “symbolic power” of meat among a sample of 47 vegetarians and vegans, and 19 meat eaters. Most of the vegetarians and vegans reported strong feelings of disgust at the sight and smell of raw meat (e.g., when walking past a butcher’s shop). Many reported actively avoiding exposing themselves to these disgust elicitors (“I can’t bear the smell”; “I have to exhale or stop breathing and hurry past quickly”). Furthermore, they associated these sensory aspects of raw meat with death and decay (“it’s a dead animal”; “it just sort of looks morbid”). Some couldn’t help but draw parallels to human flesh (“what’s the difference between a dead person and a dead animal?”).

Red meat tends to disgust people more than white meat because of its typicality and vividness as animal flesh. Photo credit: Sven Brandsma 

Red meat appears to be particularly disgusting for many people. Most meat reducers tend to avoid red meat over white meat. Kubberod and her colleagues argue that this is because red meat is high in “meat typicality” and vividness – it resembles “flesh” more than does white meat. The bloodiness and tough texture of red meat are strong elicitors of disgust and meat avoidance, particularly for adolescent females. This is probably because such cues serve as reliable reminders of the animal origins of meat. Studies suggest that people experience disgust more towards meat that reminds them of an animal than meat that lacks “animal reminders” (e.g., a pig roast with the head intact vs. removed).8

Arguably, people may find animal cues, such as blood, offal, and body parts, disgusting because they remind people that they are eating the flesh of a dead animal and dead animals are potential carriers of disease. That is, animal reminders may simply trigger our evolved instinct to avoid pathogens. But this is probably too narrow of a view. At least for many meat avoiders, meat – particularly meat that resembles the animal source – is also cognitively linked to notions of violence and injustice, not simply disease.

How important is disgust in motivating meat avoidance?

One of the big questions in the literature on disgust and meat is: “Do meat avoiders avoid meat because they are disgusted by it or because they find it morally reprehensible?”

The answer of course could be: “both”. Meat could be a source of disgust for meat avoiders (e.g., because meat is a constant reminder of decay and disease), but it could also be a source of anger and outrage (e.g., at the unjust treatment of animals, its contribution to global warming, pollution, biodiversity loss, etc).

Another possibility also exists: meat avoiders may find meat disgusting because they avoid it. When you stop eating something, it becomes less familiar, and familiarity is one of the principal drivers of appetite because it informs our expectations of how food will taste.

Do meat avoiders avoid meat because they are disgusted by it or because they find it morally reprehensible?

It is likely that these three forces (disgust, anger, and familiarity) interact across a person’s life course to direct them away from animal products.9

One plausible pathway might go like this: a person starts avoiding certain meat products (e.g., red meat) for reasons having to do with disgust (they are grossed out with the sensory aspects of red meat – its texture and smell). Over time they come to realise there are other good reasons for avoiding meat (e.g., they read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and realise that meat production is unnecessarily cruel to animals). These moral reasons inspire the person to avoid other sorts of animal products, thus, strengthening and broadening the range of products they avoid. Avoiding these products then, over time, reinforces a sense of disgust, since the person rarely eats these foods and thus finds them less appetising. Meanwhile, the ideological connection between meat and cruelty towards animals is also strengthened, fuelling the person’s anger about this injustice.

This is of course one hypothetical case (loosely based on my own experiences). Other permutations are possible, and other factors are likely important in meat avoidance (e.g., creating a sense of belonging with other meat avoiders). Nonetheless, this sketch does resemble some first-hand accounts of practicing vegetarians and vegans.

Does disgust keep people avoiding meat?

Given that many vegetarians and vegans at some point return to eating meat, the million-dollar question for many animal advocates is: “How do we keep people avoiding meat?”

The million-dollar question for many animal advocates is: “How do we keep people avoiding meat?”

For our purposes, we might rephrase the question: “Which emotion matters more for keeping people away from meat–disgust or moral anger?”

My reading of the current evidence points to the moral route, rather than disgust. There are at least two sources of evidence for this: (1) cross-sectional studies that have compared meat reduction among vegetarians with moral vs. amoral (e.g., personal health) motivations; and (2) longitudinal studies that have tracked emotions and eating over time. Most of the evidence in support of the moral route comes from (1), whereas the few studies that have looked at (2) offers inconclusive evidence for disgust.

One of the first studies of the emotional underpinnings of meat avoidance was conducted by Rozin and colleagues. In a cross-sectional design, they found that vegetarians who avoided meat for moral reasons (e.g., “violates an animal’s rights”), compared to those who avoided meat exclusively for health reasons, tended to (a) experience more disgust towards meat; (b) avoided a wider range of animal products; and (c) had accumulated more reasons for rejecting meat (including health reasons). This is certainly some evidence in favour of the moral route, given the more extensive commitments of moral vegetarians. However, it is inconclusive with regards to disgust. As we discussed earlier, disgust may be higher in moral vegetarians because they avoid more animal products (e.g., for moral reasons), and not because disgust is causing them to avoid more animal products.

Internalising moral reasons for rejecting meat may deepen commitments. Photo credit: Chuko Cribb

Another cross-sectional study by Hoffman et al. compared 234 ethical and 58 health vegetarians, using “length of time respondents had been vegetarian” as their measure of commitment. Ethical vegetarians had stronger convictions about their vegetarian identity and had been vegetarian longer than health-oriented vegetarians (M = 9.97 vs. 5.90 years). Again, these findings are limited by their cross-sectional nature, but they are suggestive that having moral reasons for avoiding meat (e.g., “Animal rights”; “The environment”) may help foster long-standing commitments. (This study is unable to speak to the role of disgust as a commitment device, since disgust was not measured.)

Studies by Feinberg and colleagues tracked emotions and meat attitudes over time. They followed university students through a semester, across three timepoints. They measured emotions experienced when thinking about meat, including guilt, shame, disgust, anger, outrage, and sadness. The emotions tended to form a single index, so the study could not discriminate between different emotions. Nonetheless, the extent to which students experienced increased meat-directed negative emotion over time tended to predict the strength of their moral convictions about the wrongness of eating meat–a process they labelled moralisation (a term coined by Paul Rozin). In follow-up studies, they showed that “moralisers” tended to reduce the amount of meat they consumed. Though these studies highlight how emotions are involved in the process of meat avoidance, they are not able to isolate the role of disgust specifically. Undoubtedly, these findings underscore the importance of cultivating moral convictions for meat avoidance.

Becker and Lawrence studied changes in meat-oriented disgust and meat avoidance across two timepoints. They followed a group of 402 omnivores, 203 flexitarians, and 106 vegetarians over a 6-month period. Among the subset of omnivores and flexitarians that were available for follow-up (n = 102), the authors observed a significant correlation between an explicit measure of meat disgust change (i.e., increased disgust between two timepoints) and reduced meat intake for the flexitarians (there was a similar, non-significant trend for omnivores). This could be evidence for disgust causing flexitarians to reduce their meat intake. However, the inverse causal direction is also plausible: avoidance of meat could be promoting an increase in disgust. Thus, until more research is conducted, this line of evidence remains agnostic towards the causal role of disgust in long-term meat avoidance.

Conclusion: How disgust can encourage meat avoidance

So far, I have argued that the moral route may be particularly important for keeping people avoiding meat. This is not to say that there is no value in utilising the power of disgust for animal advocacy. Disgust may be a useful tool for disrupting people’s appetite for meat in the short-term. How might this work?

Disgust may be a useful tool for disrupting people’s appetite for meat in the short-term.

Within a targeted intervention, two key questions are: (1) “what is your objective?“, and (2) “who is your audience?” If your objective is to get a current meat eater to avoid a certain meat product, then I would argue that there is great value in exploring the disgust route. If, instead, your objective is to help a current meat avoider continue along the path of meat avoidance, then I would make sure they are aware of the moral reasons for avoiding meat and that they have internalised these moral convictions.

It is important to consider your audience when designing an intervention because active meat eaters are unlikely to be sympathetic to moral arguments for avoiding meat. This could be because they don’t see much value in the life of a fish, cow, or chicken; they don’t appreciate the extent of the harm that factory farming causes the planet; or they want to keep eating meat. For individuals in this early, pre-contemplation stage of change, the disgust route may be a more effective option.

Disgust may be a potential kick-starter intervention for omnivores because, as we have seen, all humans have evolved sensitivities for detecting and responding to pathogens. A great example of this comes from the Humane League’s work on factory farmed fish. Fish farming is morally heinous because of the countless number of fish lives that are harmed by it. But this argument may not have fins for most fish eaters. Fish farming is also disgusting because of the high risk of zoonotic disease transmission and the abundant use of chemicals. In focus-group interviews with fish consumers, the Humane League observed that disgust-oriented descriptions of fish farming (e.g., highlighting the risk of disease) was more upsetting to fish consumers than emphasising the ethical issues (e.g., the inhumane conditions suffered by fish).

This is a great example of using disgust within a targeted intervention. If there are good reasons to believe that your audience will not respond to moral arguments or be angered by meat production, disgust may be a useful alternative because even the most deeply committed meat lover will struggle with the thought of ingesting rotten meat. Evolution has designed us to be wary of harmful microbes, and meat has no shortage of risks to human health and hygiene.


1 Some would argue that disgust is better classified as a primitive, reflexive sensory experience, like hunger or thirst, rather than a complex emotion.

2 Disgust may be associated with increased activation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), including increased heart rate and digastricus (“swallow”) muscle activity, though evidence for this is mixed.

3 The “sick face” may not be unique to the experience of “disgust”, as there is substantial variability in the presentation, use, and identification of emotion expressions. For example, the sick face might be interpreted as “sadness” if presented in a context where you learned that a person just received news of their parent dying.

4 This is one of Rozin and Nemeroff’s “laws of sympathetic magic” – the “similarity principle“.

5 Some researchers call scenarios that involve disgusting content “purity violations“.

6 Nabi showed that terms like “grossed out” or “nauseous” better communicate the oral-inhibitory nature of disgust and are less likely to be confused with “anger”.

7 Some theorists distinguish anger at harms experienced personally (e.g., someone insulting you) from “moral outrage” which is anger experienced at injustice. The difference primarily concerns the target of the offence: self (personal anger) vs. someone you identify with (moral anger or outrage).

8 Other studies suggest that “animal reminders” may only be problematic for appetites when meat is unfamiliar and thus consumers are uncertain about its tastiness.

9 Though beyond the scope of this article, guilt is another important emotion for meat avoidance. I would connect guilt to the “moral route”. It is the emotion one experiences when you notice you have violated your internalised standards (e.g., to avoid meat, help animals, etc.). It often motivates us to engage in reparations. Anticipatory guilt can keep us from violating those standards.

Author: Jared Piazza

By Rebecca Gregson and Jared Piazza

Feature photo credit: niklas schoenberger

Veganism is a dietary lifestyle that boasts of benefits to the planet and personal health, underpinned by a moral philosophy. More than a fad, for many, veganism is a part of who they are. Indeed, studies have found that, relative to vegetarians, self-identified vegans report that their diet is highly central to their identity.  Vegans also tend to attribute high-levels of sentience to animals, identify with animals, and strongly support animal rights. 

Nonetheless, maintaining a vegan lifestyle represents a significant challenge for many people. A Fauntalytics study estimated that there are approximately 5 times as many former vegans than there are practising vegans. This begs the question: what happens when a person abandons their vegan identity?  Does the ethical framework that underpins their veganism also loosen? 

Abandoning a group identity: What do we know?

While psychologists know a lot about why people identify with groups and the consequences of group identification, we have much to learn about what happens when a person psychologically sheds a core identity like veganism. Might certain representative behaviours persist – for example, might ex-vegans continue to reject speciesist beliefs or remain environmentally conscientious?  Or are they pulled in the opposite direction in reaction to their previous identity?

What happens when a person psychologically sheds a core identity like veganism? Photo credit: Markus Spiske

One possibility is that individuals react strongly to their pre-existing identity and put effort into distancing themselves from it. This “clean break” form of exiting might be seen as the inverse of the overnight conversion experience: quitting an identity “cold turkey”. Clean-breakers, if they exist, would likely harbour negative attitudes toward their former identity and perhaps even regret their involvement. 

A more likely scenario is that individuals continue to exemplify aspects of the identity as they shed it. Sociologists call this “role hangover” – the residual beliefs or behaviours carried over from a former identity as a person transitions away from it.

Research on exiting a religious identity offers a useful insight into the process of role hangover. “Religious residue” is a phenomenon that has been studied by social scientists. It has been observed that many individuals who abandon their faith continue, often throughout their life, to endorse beliefs or exhibit behaviours (e.g., charitable giving) associated with their former life. These ex-believers are more likely to hold positive attitudes towards practicing believers and God than those who have never been religious.

Like religion, do we see vegan ‘residue’?

If ex-vegans were to exhibit identity residue, we might expect them to continue expressing some of the behaviours and attitudes central to veganism. Most central to the vegan philosophy is the aim to avoid causing animals suffering. One way this core value might persist regards consumer habits. Relative to the average consumer, ex-vegans might prioritise products thought to have higher welfare standards, for example, shopping for local, pasture-raised meat.

More systematic work is needed to test this idea. However, some anecdotal reports from a Guardian article suggests that ex-vegans continue to exhibit behaviours that more closely align with vegan values than carnistic values, for example, by concerning themselves with the environmental impact of their eating habits. 

Ex-vegans may continue to exhibit behaviours that align with vegan values, for example, taking action for the environment. Photo credit: Markus Spiske

More systematic evidence on vegan identity residue comes from the aforementioned study by Faunalytics, which found that, on average, former vegans in the U.S. reported consuming relatively small quantities of meat – chicken (0.3 servings per day), beef (0.2) and pork (0.1) – though larger quantities of dairy (0.9 servings per day). This might suggest that ex-vegans behaviourally are less carnistic than the average omnivore who has never gone vegan. 

Unfortunately, no data was collected from omnivores to make a direct comparison. However, some unpublished experience-sampling data from our own lab makes for an imperfect comparison: a sample of 249 omnivorous participants from the UK reported eating 1.6 servings of chicken, 1.4 servings of beef and 1.4 servings of pork per day. Extrapolating from these results, it is possible that never-been-vegan omnivores are consuming approximately one extra serving of meat per day than former vegans.

Probably the most direct evidence of identity residue comes from a qualitative study by Menzies and Sheeshka (2012) that sampled 19 ex-vegetarians in Ontario and found that most of the sample reported practising a diet that more closely resembled a flexitarian or reducitarian diet compared to the average meat consumer.   

Reactive and ambivalent ex-vegans 

The discussion so far paints a fairly rosey picture of vegan de-identification. But might some former vegans exhibit a more extreme reaction to their past lifestyle?

A recent  study by Aguilera-Carnerero and Carretero-González (2021) of online “anti-vegan” communities show that many of these groups have ex-vegans in their ranks, who can be observed acting as “implacable anti-vegan activists” that share their experiences to warn and admonish others of the seductive misinformation of vegans. Likewise, a quick Youtube search for the term ‘ex vegan’ returns videos of former vegans expressing strong, antithetical attitudes towards vegan ideology. For instance, one ex-vegan YouTuber stated that veganism is a “horror story” that “almost killed” them.

The number of ex-vegans who seesaw to identify as “anti-vegan” remains unclear. Photo credit: Yakuplpek

Yet, this evidence is largely anecdotal and the exact proportion of ex-vegans who seesaw to identify as “anti-vegan” is unclear.

Other ex-vegans may be better characterised as occupying a state of ambivalence about their dietary practices. A pioneering study by Barr and Chapman (2002) interviewed a sample of 35 former vegetarians, who had followed a vegetarian diet for, on average, 3.3 years. The beliefs of these former vegetarians were compared with those of current vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

The authors found that former vegetarians were more like non-vegetarians in some respects, but more like current vegetarians in other respects. For example, they agreed more with non-vegetarians that meat and dairy can have positive health benefits, but agreed more with vegetarians that meat and dairy can also be a source of potential contaminants, such as unnatural hormones” and antibiotics. It’s possible that many ex-vegans may exhibit similarly ambivalent attitudes with respect to animal products.

More directly, in the 2014 Faunalytics study, it was estimated that approximately 37% of former vegans are interested in re-adopting their former vegan diet. This suggests that some former vegans are in a state of flux about their diets, hovering somewhere between the dietary identities of semi-vegetarian and vegan.

Reflections, caveats, and conclusions

Why might some ex-vegans react strongly to their former lifestyle, while others seek to gradually renegotiate the boundaries of their dietary convictions? The study of vegan drift is too nascent to draw firm conclusions about what differentiates such individuals. 

Though the process of shedding a vegan identity has parallels with that of a religious identity, it is clear that there also exists some important differences. For one, when individuals shed their former religious identity, they often experience psychological rifts (and at times physical rifts) with family members and friends. This is not generally the case for ex-vegans who often complain about never having a community of like-minded supporters in the first place. 

Unlike veganism, shedding a religious identity often comes at the cost of losing life-long connections. Photo credit: Pixabay

Furthermore, while the motivations for leaving veganism are often social in nature (e.g., not finding other vegans or fitting in with others), the same cannot be said for leaving religion. Religious identities are often inherited – transmitted within families – and adherents may leave because of a change in their worldview, for example, shifting from a belief in supernaturalism to empiricism. The shift away from veganism is probably less epistemological. Some beliefs might motivate an exit – for example, believing that vegan diets are nutritionally inadequate – but such beliefs do not appear to be the principal reasons for exiting. 

Moreover, we must consider that some social identities are “soft” identities, with permeable boundaries, whereas other identities have more rigid boundaries. Veganism may better qualify as a “soft” identity that shares many underlying values with neighbouring dietary identities, such as vegetarianism and pescetarianism. 

If the “role hangover” model best characterises the bulk of ex-vegan experiences, then perhaps exiting veganism should be viewed less like exiting a particular religious identity (e.g., ex-Methodist or ex-Hindu) and more like moving from being highly religious to being less so. One does not completely throw off the ideological underpinnings, but applies them with less stringency or fervour.   

Authors: Rebecca Gregson and Jared Piazza

By Stefan Leach and Jared Piazza

Cover image by motomoto sc

In 1999, Schiphol airport made the seemingly odd choice to etch the image of a fly in the urinal bowls of their male toilets. This resulted in an 80% reduction in mess because it gave men something to take aim at, and has come to be known as the quintessential ‘nudge’ – an intervention or modification of the environment that steers people towards a desirable behaviour, arguably, while preserving freedom of choice.

The nudge approach promises substantial behavioural change with relatively small interventions and has been applied with success in areas such as smoking cessation, retirement savings, college enrolment, energy consumption, and eating (Benartzi et al., 2017). The approach presents an exciting prospect for those looking for ways to intervene on food choices. If we can subtly intervene within contexts in which people make their choices, perhaps we can nudge them towards the healthier and more ethical options.

Which sort of nudge?

When it comes to nudging people towards better eating, there are many ways to do this. A nudge may involve altering the layout of an environment to make the ethical choice more visible or accessible (accessibility and default-option nudges) – consider how foods are organised at checkout counters or on restaurant menus. The seller might endeavour to better inform consumers about the reasons for selecting a product (informational nudges) or alter how a product is presented (presentational nudges). Finally, nudges might entail consumers being approached or invited to reflect on or reconsider their choices (self-monitoring nudges).

Whether a given nudge is likely to be effective depends on a variety of factors, including the degree to which consumers have behavioural commitments or strong preferences for particular options. Here, we consider some of the more promising nudges that have been applied to consumer behaviour, and reflect on some of their limits and challenges.

Accessibility and Default-Option Nudges

Making foods more accessible can nudge people towards choosing them. Supermarkets know this and it is why, often to our detriment, they place sweets within arms reach at checkout counters. Kongsbak and colleagues (2016) tested if people could be encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables by placing these healthier options before meat, bread, and pasta on a buffet cart. Doing so increased the proportion of fruits and vegetables consumed, compared to the standard buffet set-up of having fruits and vegetables at the end. Garnett and colleagues (2019) tested a similar intervention by increasing the number of vegetarian options (to meat options) from 1:4 to 2:4 at a University cafeteria over a 12 month period. They found that this increased vegetarian meal sales and decreased meat sales.

Presenting the vegetarian dish as the default on a menu boosted sales (Gravert & Kurz, 2021). Photo credit: Catherine Heath

Which food options are identified as the default can nudge people towards particular choices. Gravert and Kurz (2021) handed out two different lunch menus to restaurant customers in Gothenburg. The first included a meat dish among the default options and a vegetarian option on request. The second included a vegetarian dish among the defaults and a meat dish on request. Customers who received the menu with the vegetarian dish as default were less likely to order the meat option and more likely to order the vegetarian one (see also Kurz, 2018; Parkin & Attwood, 2022). Hansen and colleagues (2021) tested the effect of changing the default meal option from non-vegetarian to vegetarian for conference delegates. In one case, this resulted in a staggering 76 percentage-point increase in delegates choosing the vegetarian option (from 13% to 89%).

Informational Nudges

Informational nudges seek to provide consumers with relevant information about their choices. With regards to meat, this might be information about the animals involved or the impact of meat on personal health or the environment. Or the information could be aimed at shifting perceptions about current consumer norms.

Choueiki et al. (2021) placed informational stickers on a meat product (beef patty), much like “warning labels” on cigarette packages. The stickers either emphasised that cows are intelligent, that they are sociable, or experience physical pain like humans, or they simply included an image of a cow or no sticker (as a baseline). Compared to the image-only and no sticker control, it was the information about cows’ ability to suffer that particularly lowered purchasing intentions. The conclusion: information about animal suffering can discourage people from purchasing meat.

Social norm nudges work by updating people’s beliefs about what people around them are doing. They encourage participation in a practice by motivating people to be in step with current social norms. Probably the most studied social-norm intervention involves providing consumers with “dynamic norm messages”, where consumers learn that the norms around a particular behaviour, like vegetarian eating, are shifting. Sparkman and colleagues (2020) showed that subtle exposure to dynamic norm messages could shift consumer behaviour towards less meat. The researchers placed a dynamic norm message, “Our meatless burgers are on the rise”, at the top of a menu displayed in a university cafeteria. Vegetarian orders increased by 1.4% among students (identified by the use of their student ID card) in the weeks that the message was visible, compared to weeks where the message was absent. In a similar vein, a study by Bolderdijk and Cornelissen (2022) found that omnivores were more likely to endorse a petition to increase the number of veggie options on campus when the experimenter themselves had signed the petition, thus, communicating a local norm to support the effort.

Presentational Nudges

How food options are presented can nudge people towards a particular option. For example, packaging and labelling meat alternatives in a way that emphasises their taste profile seems to be important for consumer acceptance (Parry & Szejda, 2019).

Studies have shown that meat products can be made less appealing by presenting them in ways that remind people of their animal origins. For example, Kunst and Hohle (2016) had consumers rate how appetising they found a hog roast that either included the pig’s head or not. Including the head made consumers think more about the slaughtered animal, feel sympathy for it, and, as a result, they rated the dish less appealing. Likewise, Piazza and colleagues (2018) had omnivores evaluate meat dishes that had been visually presented with a baby or adult animal, or no animal. Consumers, particularly women, found the meat less appealing when it was paired with the baby animal, as their feelings of tenderness towards the animal were momentarily aroused.

Self-monitoring Nudges

Self-monitoring nudges invite people to engage with a new behaviour or reflect on their reasons for engaging in a current behaviour. An example of this might be a campaign (e.g., Veganuary) that asks consumers to join a “pledge” to eat meat-free for a period of time. Another example might be sampling a meat alternative at a grocery store. By engaging with the action for a period of time, such nudges might help awaken in someone the realisation that alternative actions are possible or even desirable. Pledges can be tailored or paired with other interventions to enhance a sense of commitment – for example, providing reasons for the pledge or encouraging individuals to pledge with their family or partner. 

In a recent study, Piazza and colleagues (2021) invited omnivores from the UK, Germany and Australia to eat “meat-free” for a month and their food choices were tracked for 28 days. A control group of omnivores at each site were tracked without this invitation. The authors found that meat consumption substantially dropped during the pledging period, relative to the control group, suggesting that pledges can be an effective way of getting people to engage in a new behaviour. However, those who participated in the pledge reported craving meat at high rates, and one-month after the pledge was over, eating habits had returned to pre-intervention rates. This suggests that pledging alone is not sufficient to maintain the behaviour. Additional support is needed to ensure consumers are satisfied with their choices and know how to maintain them. 

When a nudge is not enough

The findings discussed above are encouraging and suggest that we can nudge people towards more ethical options by intervening within the contexts in which food choices are made. Successful nudges embrace our tendency to be cognitively lazy and unthinking by structuring the environment in such a way that doing so will lead to desirable outcomes (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Of course, this raises important ethical issues around who should be allowed to make such societal manipulations and which behaviours should be manipulated, that is, which outcomes are “desirable”?

Though concerns about choice paternalism are not misplaced, it is important to recognise that nudges do not rule out consumer freedom. Most nudges only really work when people are relatively indifferent about their choices (de Ridder et al., 2021) and the intervention is not so transparent as a manipulation as to elicit consumer reactance (see Koch et al., 2022). I (Stefan) can only speak for myself but, when I go to the supermarket wanting ice cream, I won’t be deterred by it being at the far end of the supermarket at the back of an icy-cold freezer. No amount of inconvenience is going to stop me from getting that ice cream. Likewise, when a meat lover encounters a menu with vegetarian options strategically featured at the top, no amount of nudging towards these options is likely to upend their desire for that sirloin steak.

The point is that nudges fail most when people have strong preferences. One example of this comes from a study by Just and Wansink (2009). They tried to reduce children’s unhealthy food choices by making fruit the default option compared to french fries in a school cafeteria. This intervention had no detectable effect on what the children ultimately ate, with 96% of them swapping from the default fruit to the french fries. This is presumably because their preferences were so strong that the default no longer mattered. 

Meat lovers tended to avoid information about pigs’ intelligence (Leach et al., 2022). Photo credit: Marek Piwnicki 

A love for meat can be a prior commitment that poses a significant barrier to change. My colleagues and I (Leach et al., 2022) provided omnivores with an intervention that could nudge them towards meat-free options: presenting information about food animals’ sentience. However, this informational nudge was more quickly disregarded by those with a strong preference for meat than those with a weak preference. Likewise, research by Possidonio et al. (2022) highlights how familiarity with food can render certain nudges ineffective. Possidonio and her colleagues found that animal reminders are not problematic for meat products that are highly familiar. They showed that even though consumers associate familiar, high-resemblance products with the animal source (e.g., thinking of chickens when seeing a roasted chicken), consumers still found such products appealing. This was not true for unfamiliar foods that resembled animals (e.g., roasted alligator). This is why British consumers have no problem chowing down on a whole turkey at Christmas or why Spanish consumers enjoy carving up a full leg of ham. 

Reflections and Conclusion 

There is a silver lining to this research on strong priors and nudging. Just as meat commitments often nullify the effects of nudges, the same is true for commitments that run in the opposite direction. For example, Taube and Vetter (2019) found that making a non-organic product the default option had little effect on those who had strong pro-environmental values. This study highlights the upside of consumer resistance to nudging – when a person has a strong commitment to ethical action, a nudge in the opposite direction is unlikely to override this commitment. 

Because even the most well-thought-out choice context can be rendered mute by strong preferences, we should not lose sight of how important it is to attempt to intervene directly on people’s motivations and commitments to eating meat. To do this may require thinking carefully about the sort of nudge one employs. When meat commitments are strong, simply making veggie options more accessible or provoking emotions with animal reminders may not be enough. Strategies may need to shift from these sorts of nudges to more informational and self-monitoring ones. Conversely, when it is impossible to convince consumers of the benefits or the rising popularity of a product, accessibility nudges may be a better place to start – in other words, providing exposure to the product may be an important first step.

Environments can be “hacked” to increase product accessibility. But consumers also need to understand why an alternative is good for them, have good options to choose from, believe that their actions are in line with societal trends, and that they have made the choice freely. Such nudges, when delivered non-coercively, have the benefit of preserving consumers’ sense of autonomy, which is important for maintaining long-term support for the shift in behaviour.

Authors: Stefan Leach and Jared Piazza

In this piece, Rebecca Gregson considers the negative impact that anti-veganism might be having on the vegan movement, highlighting issues of dietary lapse, self-silencing, and intra-movement conflict.

Feature photo credit: Chris Slupski

Anti-veg*n Sentiment

For as long as meat-free diets have existed, there have been people who denigrate vegetarians and vegans (or veg*ns) for their dietary choices. As far back as the 19th Century, there is documented evidence of veg*ns being ridiculed in popular press, regarded as cadaverous, feeble, and half-crazed. These same sentiments were later echoed in the discourse analysis of UK national newspapers, some 100 years later.

But, with the rise in veg*n popularity and the advent of social media, today anti-veg*nism is a somewhat different beast. Some have argued that veg*n antipathy is experiencing a recent wave in prevalence. According to a 2020 Times article, the UK police forces have recorded 172 instances of veg*n hate crimes between the years 2015-2020, just under a third of which took place in 2020. These changes have prompted academics and government bodies to recognise anti-veg*nism as a prejudice and to protect ‘ethical veganism’ under the Equality Act 2010.

Like other stigmatised identities, ‘ethical veganism’ is a protected status under the Equality Act 2010. Photo credit: Jason Leung

Like a virus, this anti-veg*n hate has spread online. Online communities of self-identified “anti-vegans”, like Reddit’s r/AntiVegan and Facebook’s Anti Vegan League have sprung up right across the internet. If you have happened to stumble across online anti-veg*n discourse, then you will know that these groups revel in satirical humour and the sharing of taunting internet memes.

“How do you know if someone is vegan?…Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Or so the meme goes. This meme in particular uses satire and frivolity to disguise the stereotypical view that those who eschew meat are intolerably vocal about it. This view sits alongside the common perception of veg*ns as being militant and moralistic. It speaks to the idea that veg*ns push their views on people, uninvited and at the wrong time.

Consider the way in which vegan character Nora is presented in this scene from How I Met Your Mother. Note a number of things about how the vegan character is portrayed.  There is an entire story to be told about the fact that Nora is a female protagonist, but a story for another blog piece, perhaps. More relevant here is the way in which Nora is seen discussing the moral motivations of her dietary preferences and casting judgment on those at the dinner table (wrong time, wrong place).

This depiction is typical of TV’s representation of veg*ns. And, whether popular discourse implicates public opinion, or vice versa, this representation perpetuates the common stereotype of veg*ns as overly moralistic, judgmental individuals. Ted’s later dismissal of Nora’s vegan spiel also feeds into this idea that the acceptance of veg*ns hinges on the unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, as discussed by Iacobbo and Iacobbo (2006).

Lonely, Lapsing Veg*ns

Anti-veg*nism is so prevalent and insufferable that even the meat-eating majority anticipate veg*n stigma, which serves as a The title of this article, “If I went vegan, my friends and family would hate me” drawing on one of the participants own quotes. In this study, non-vegans reported socially distancing themselves from vegans in order to avoid any second-hand stigma.

Losing the support of family members and close friends, and experiencing co-ordination issues around food, are certainly common characteristics of the lived experiences of veg*ns and may be responsible for former veg*ns’ dietary exits. It has been estimated that approximately 84% of people who attempt a veg*n diet later abandon it, with 34% of lapses occurring within the first three-months. In the same research report, it was suggested that the negative social aspects of a vegan diet, including social awkwardness, a lack of social support and the experience of vegan stigma, explain a significant proportion of why meat refusers revert to their previous omnivorous diet.

The research discussed thus far suggests that anti-veg*nism can make veg*nism a lonely place and, unsurprisingly, hard to maintain. In self-report research with a sample of 371 veg*n participants, approximately 45% of vegetarians and 66% of vegans said that they had experienced some degree of discrimination because of their dietary choice.

For those who experience and withstand veg*n stigma, many may find themselves adopting strategies to manage difficult social interactions. In the above research, 56% of vegetarians and 77% of vegans said that they had engaged in at least some form of stigma-coping mechanism. These mechanisms include concealing the moral motivations underlying their lifestyle or remaining altogether silent.

The Vocal Veg*n?

The qualitative work by Jessica Greenebaum documents a number of these “face-saving” strategies that vegans employ to manage the tension that they face when communicating with meat eaters. These range from waiting for an appropriate time to discuss veg*nism, to avoiding confrontation all together. Further, when such conversations do arise, vegans may reframe their diet as a ‘personal choice’, motivated by self-focused concerns, like health, to dilute the moral tone of their veg*nism. This strategy appears to make veg*nism more palatable to onlookers. Recent research from Maike Weiper and Roos Vonk shows that personally motivated vegans (i.e., those who eschew animal-products for health reasons) are liked more than those who do so for ethical reasons.

Veg*ns often self-silence to when they believe their position will represent the minority view. Photo credit: Kristina Flour

Jan Willem Bolderdijk and Gert Cornelissen suggest that during encounters with meat-eaters, those who eschew meat often remain silent about such decision. In their adaptation of the classic conformity study by Solomon Asch, Bolderdijk and Cornelissen recruited meat abstaining participants to complete an experiment alongside meat eating confederates. In this study, all participants were given the opportunity to sign a petition in favour of supermarkets increasing their assortment of vegan food alternatives, thus, expressing their meat-free preferences. In the pilot testing phase of this experiment, the authors established a baseline rate of petition signing amongst a sample of veg*n participants that fell between 88-100%.

In the critical condition, the non-vegetarian confederates received the petition first and declined to sign. When veg*n participants were exposed to the non-veg*n confederates who declined to sign, just 52.3% of them decided to sign the petition themselves. The authors take this as evidence that meat avoiders are less inclined to support meat-free policies when exposed to the counter-views of a majority. The authors refer to this effect as self-silencing.


Recent research has suggested that despite sharing the same superordinate goal (the disavowel of meat consumption), there exist substantial tensions between vegans and vegetarians. It would seem that the topic of self-silencing veg*ns is one such source of tension between members of the animal rights movement.

Consider this post from r/vegan made four years ago. In this post, we hear from user ‘Jaybutts’ about their frustration towards self-silencing vegans. Jaybutts explains how vegans are under “social pressure” to remain silent about veganism and argue that submitting to such pressure is being “complacent”, conforming to the social norm which is to eat animals. Jaybutts concludes: “PLEASE do not let the flesh eaters silence you”.

While internal conflict is inevitable (some might argue natural) to progressive social movements, such conflicts can devolve to destructive patterns of avoidance, ostracism, and public humiliation, none of which maintain unity, encourage principled opposition, or demonstrate an ability to solve large-scale social problems. Thus, if left unmanaged, internal conflict has the potential to undermine the movements success.

Drawing Faulty Assumptions

While self-silencing might be a cause of frustration within the movement, psychological theory lends a hand in explaining why it’s to be expected and perhaps more common than we might have thought. The concept of pluralistic ignorance is the idea that individuals may, erroneously, hold the belief that one’s personal attitudes are different from the majority. This generally happens when people fail to communicate their personal attitudes for fear of deviating from the perceived normative view.

If we use this model to make predictions about veg*ns’ behaviour, then we might expect veg*ns to make erroneous judgments about the number of omnivores who hold anti-veg*n views. As work on minority influence attests, minority views are often held more widely in private than in public. Thus, there is likely more support for meat reduction among omnivores than veg*ns often infer. Ultimately, self-silencing might be based upon a faulty inference about what most omnivores actually think.

Using the same logic, it also follows that silent veg*ns perpetuate the view that veg*nism is a minority preference – a niche diet – and that eating animals is the norm. When veg*ns remain silent, omnivores assume there are fewer practicing veg*ns than there actually are. Thus, it’s possible that veg*n self-silencing may be slowing the momentum of the movement. How can we prevent this and break the silence?

Come Together Right Now…”

It can be hard to speak out when you feel alone in your beliefs. Photo credit: Dimhou

Trawling the comment section of the aforementioned Reddit post, we learn that veg*ns may also self-silence because in such high-pressured discussions, they feel that they struggle to communicate effectively. While we may communicate with others in our everyday lives, communicating a message effectively is an art and something that takes practise to master. Recognising these issues, Melanie Joy and Tobias Leenaert founded the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy which has a whole host of freely accessible resources for veg*ns. 

It can be difficult to feel empowered to speak about matters close to your heart when you are without a tribe, or community of people who support you in your choices. This issue was highlighted in recent work by Faunalytics, where it was found that a lack of social support was the principal reported reason for exiting a veg*n diet.

Perceiving the existence of allies can be a resource for overcoming self-silencing. In the study by Bolderdijk and Cornelissen, they included an additional condition where, across some trials, the group moderator endorsed the petition themselves, stating “I signed it, but don’t feel obliged to sign it as well”. In this condition, when the moderator endorsed the petition, thus, presenting themselves as a veg*n ally, a much larger proportion of meat-avoiding participants (84.4%) were willing to sign.

These finding speak to the important role that allies play in encouraging people to speak up about their own veg*nism. Those looking for veg*n allies might consider becoming affiliated with veg*n organisations, like our very own PHAIR Society, or the Vegan Society. You might take to social media, the likes of Facebook or Reddit, to find groups of like minded individuals, in your local area and with whom you can relate. In addition, if you are at an educational institute, a college or university you might find a veg*n society–a great place to meet fellow veg*ns and allies.

Internal conflict within a social movement can be self-defeating and thus practising acceptance toward other members of the movement is important. Experiencing prejudice can be hurtful and demotivating. In a movement that is concerned with compassion towards other living beings, we ought to practise this amongst ourselves; valuing the dignity and respecting the integrity of our peers. 

Author: Rebecca Gregson.

Editorial Contributions: Jared Piazza

Victoria Simpson and Jared Piazza consider the upsides and downsides of animal anthropomorphism, and ask, “Which traits help animals the most?”

Feature photo credit: Annie Spratt

Meet Gunda

In the opening scene to the critically acclaimed film, Gunda, the audience is presented with an entrance to a barn, shot in black and white, with no accompanying music, captions, or voice-overs. All that can be heard is the faint humming of wildlife, and the squealing of a newly birthed piglet as she roles, unceremoniously, from the barn entrance. This entrance feels intimate, transfixing. It provides a portal, through which the audience can become immersed in the lives of animal protagonists: a mother sow (Gunda), her piglets, a one-legged chicken, and a small herd of ageing cows.

This stripping back of the film, by vegan director, Victor Kossakovsky, is clearly intentional. There is no interpretation or humanisation here. The director wants viewers to make up their own minds about the possibility of pigs having “consciousness and selfhood”.

Kossakovsky’s ultimate goal is to change human attitudes towards other species, giving cinematic space to animals that are not typically loved. A worthy venture, given the urgent need to improve the lives of animals raised on industrial farms. But is Kossakovsky’s strategy a good one? Will audiences come away with an increased respect for farmed animals? Might the witnessing of the humble, lived-experience of farmed animals, unfiltered and devoid of human projections, inspire real concern for these animals, or are viewers likely to leave the film unchanged?

Are pigs themselves their best advocates? Photo credit: Kenneth Schipper Vera 

Minding Farmed Animals

There is no denying that meat is palatable to many. But the process of slaughtering animals for food, is not. This tension between enjoying meat and believing meat harms animals, has been termed the “meat paradox”. Such a state of conflict or “dissonance” is unpleasant. Research suggests that humans employ a variety of strategies, many outside of their awareness, to avoid this unpleasant state.

For example, meat eaters often avoid thinking too deeply about the minds of the animals they eat. Such animals are thought to have lower cognitive capacities and are ascribed less sophisticated emotional abilities than animals not eaten. This act of denying animals thoughts and feelings has the psychological benefit of making it feel less wrong to cage and slaughter them.  Conversely, several studies have shown that when people think about animals, like pigs and cows, as having more sophisticated minds, they feel increased levels of guilt about eating them.

If thinking about animals as having qualities that humans have–e.g., the ability to imagine, reason, and love–increases our concern for them, then might “humanising” animals be something that animal advocates want to embrace? Or is it something that should be avoided because it robs animals of their uniqueness and places humans centre stage? We might ask, “Would the film, Gunda, have been more effective if Kossakovsky imposed a narration that drew explicit parallels between Gunda’s life and ours?” This question requires careful consideration, as how we answer it has implications for how we approach animal advocacy.

Anthropomorphism: Good or bad?

To answer this question, we find it useful to think of anthropomorphism on a sliding scale. Building on the work of psychologist, Nicolas Epley, one might think about it this way: on the extreme end, we have “absurd anthropomorphism”, where animals are caricatured and treated just as humans. An example of this would be Scrooge McDuck‘s love of money, greedily hoarding his vaults of gold. In its weaker form, we have “mind attribution” or the attribution of qualities to animals that humans also happen to possess. An example here would be the observation that fish, like humans, can cooperate; e.g., groupers and moray eels coordinate their actions to more effectively capture their coral-reef dwelling prey.

It is also important to consider who benefits from anthropomorphism: us or them? Research suggests that humans are naturally inclined to anthropomorphise, not just animals but all sorts of entities, like computers, cars, and other gadgets. Doing so can help people feel connected, particularly when feeling lonely or socially isolated. But does anthropomorphising animals help animals?

Here, we argue that weaker forms of anthropomorphism are likely to be more productive for animal advocacy than extreme forms, because they get us to think about the animal and not just stay within our own anthropocentric world.

Absurd anthropomorphism: A dog that reads literature. Photo credit: 2PhotoPots

Absurd anthropomorphism: Thinking about animals as humans

Many of us will be familiar with the children’s story, in which three little pigs construct houses of varying strengths to avoid being eaten by the big bad wolf. This, of course, is nonsensical: pigs may be fearful and clever, but they cannot construct houses out of straw, sticks or bricks. For many veg*ns, this story feels even more preposterous. Given the fact that pigs are one of the most widely consumed land animals – the big bad wolf in this story might as well be a human.

Children love animals, which is why a large percentage of picture books contain absurdly anthropomorphised animals in place of humans. A basic storyline, such as that of The three little pigs, not only becomes more intriguing with pig protagonists, but also allows for a rather graphic ending for the wolf. Had the “big bad wolf” been a “big bad man” meeting his end in a pot of boiling water, there may have been a few raised eyebrows from parents.

Picture books are undoubtedly designed to be as appealing as possible to children—this is the money-making side of children’s literature. If you can throw in an important moral message or two, without causing harm, even better. This is the pedagogical side of story books—they are meant to teach children lessons about the society they inhabit; for example, how to navigate difficult situations at school or with peers.

Sadly, the “society” that children inhabit is increasingly devoid of interactions with animals (cats and dogs being the exception). If you have read our recent interview with Dr Anastassiya Andrianova, then you know that caricaturing animals in children’s literature can be problematic because it spares parents an opportunity to have real conversations with children about how humans relate to animals. This sort of “absurd” anthropomorphism can even, at times, hinder children’s prosocial development, and interfere with their ability to retain facts about animals and the natural world.

The heart of the problem is that most uses of anthropomorphism in children’s literature is the “absurd” kind. That is, they involve depictions of animals “as” humans. Rather than attributing to them the impressive traits that they actually possess, animals are used as props in an entirely human world.

Weak anthropomorphism: Thinking about animals as having abilities we have

A form of anthropomorphism that may be of some benefit to animals is the softer kind. Instead of caricaturing animals, such that contact with the animal’s world is lost, a more subtle form of anthropomorphism involves recognising that animals exhibit behaviours similar to those found in humans. This form of humanisation remains tied to the animal’s own world. It recognises that animals are distinctive, yet nonetheless share qualities that humans have.

Studies shows, for example, that individuals who tend to anthropomorphise animals, in this ‘weak’ sense, also tend to avoid meat. Though the relationship is small, it seems to be explained by individuals who anthropomorphise having greater empathy towards animals and a greater concern for their welfare. By contrast, denying the existence of these shared characteristics in animals, what Frans de Waal calls “anthropodenial”, is a useful strategy for not having to concern oneself with their suffering.

Which traits should we emphasise?

If ascribing human-related traits to animals promotes concern for them, then an important, ancillary question inevitably arises: “Which human traits help animals the most?”

There may be plenty of traits that humans possess that, when ascribed to animals, will not benefit them and may even harm them. For example, humans are at times hostile and aggressive, but thinking about snakes as hostile and aggressive is unlikely to help their cause. The “mean wolf” stereotype used in the three pigs story is problematic because it is an absurd caricature of wolves. It is also problematic because people tend to have less concern for animals they see as threatening.

Alvin Chan suggests that successful anthropomorphism, at least in the context of animal welfare, relies on the emphasis of three specific traits: animal intelligence, prosocial behaviour, and the ability to suffer and feel pain. While more research is needed to know for sure, we surmise that traits indicative of an animals’ prosociality (i.e., being perceived as empathic, benevolent, sociable, caring) are likely to be valued more than other traits, even more so than animal intelligence. Why? Because humans ourselves are a highly social species that appreciate friendly and cooperative individuals. Brian Hare makes this point in his article, Survival of the Friendliest. The evolution of humans is marked by a tendency to self-domesticate, and this preference for benevolent traits holds for the animals we love, e.g., dogs and cats.

Probably the strongest evidence for this to date comes from research by Leach and colleagues (2021). They showed that, across a vast range of emotional and cognitive abilities, gleaned from studies of animal behaviour, traits related to an animal’s socio-moral abilities (e.g., empathy, cooperation) were most predictive of guilt over harming the animal, more so than “cold” cognitive traits, such as the ability to plan, communicate, use tools, or learn. In a similar vein, Possidónio and colleagues (2019) found that across 150 different animal species it was attributes reflective of being “cute” that predicted feelings of care and protection towards animals more so than animal intelligence.

Studies by Wang and Basso (2019) also provide some evidence that corroborates this idea. They found that when meat eaters were made to think about pigs as possessing positive social traits (e.g., as friendly and playful) they felt more guilt about eating pork than when not thinking about pigs in this way. Likewise, Kim and Yoon (2021) recently found that thinking about pigs as having humanlike social skills increased meat eaters willingness to buy a healthier, non-meat option, whereas learning about pigs’ humanlike intelligence did not.

One reason we may value prosocial traits so much is that they signal that an animal is “like us” in the most meaningful way. Having an understanding of what others are feeling and responding accordingly, is a distinctively human ability; one that we highly value in our own kind.

Like us, pigs are a highly social species. Photo credit: Marek Piwnicki

Another reason might be that prosocial traits are easier to perceive and corroborate than are non-social intelligence traits. Learning that pigs can use mirrors sounds impressive. But it may leave doubt about the methods used by scientists to “prove” the ability. Thus, animal intelligence may be easier to deny or shrug off, especially when people are motivated to maintain an activity that involves animal suffering. By contrast, even the most hardened skeptic will struggle to deny what it means to see two pigs, or a pig and a human, gleefully locked in a snuggly embrace. (Click here and give it a try!)

One potential boundary condition on our claim involves the repertoire of the animal in question. Some animals may not display prosocial traits so readily as pigs do, or in ways that we recognise (e.g., parenting and cooperative relationships among fish). For such animals, could Chan‘s third trait, the capacity for suffering, offer a more foundational attribute for raising moral concerns?

In at least one study, researchers found that drawing consumers’ attention to the suffering of cows–through images and messages on the packaging of products–induced more guilt and reduced intentions to purchase at levels greater than images and messages suggestive of cattle intelligence or prosociality. This potentially highlights the benefits of using ‘appeals to suffering’ for animals that lack the social repertoire of pigs, though additional research is needed to see if these results extend to other animals and real purchasing behaviour.

Closing Thoughts and Recommendations

So, should Kossakovsky have used a voice over in Gunda? Setting aside any artistic reasons for avoiding narration, we conclude, “No.” Kossakovsky’s unadulterated portrayal of pigs managed to capture their incredibly social nature, and their naturally playful and affectionate behaviour is enough to stir our moral emotions. Kossakovsky cleverly disperses more provocative moments throughout the film, gently tugging at the viewer’s heartstrings with glimpses of animal suffering. The cinematic decision to avoid a narrative approach keeps viewers grounded in the pig’s world and allows viewers to make attributions about the animals that bridge their world with ours.

That’s not to say that the viewers who most need to watch the film will do so or will do so with an open and welcoming spirit. And, of course, not all animals are so lucky to share in the socio-emotional repertoire of pigs. Solitary species and animals that lack the blatantly “warm” behaviours characteristic of mammalian affection will likely require different sorts of interventions than those that endear us to pigs.

Authors: Victoria Simpson & Jared Piazza