Meat on the Mind: The Psychology of Eating Animals


Very interesting piece from last month’s Psychology Today.  Psychologist Art Markman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, summarizes a recent study that suggests, in Markman’s words, “when people eat meat they tend to downplay the minds of the animals they eat.”

This is not to suggest people aren’t thinking about animal minds. “There was,” Markman continues, “a systematic relationship between the animals people choose to eat and their beliefs about the minds of the animals.” Specifically, “people were much less willing to eat animals that they believe have complex mental abilities than to eat animals that do not have complex minds.”

What consumers assume about animal intelligence, however, hinges on arbitrary preconditions. Meat eaters who envisioned animals raised on a bucolic pasture rated the minds of those animals higher than those who envisioned them being killed for food.   In another experiment, meat eaters who were asked to write about the experience of raising and butchering animals for food were fed fruit or meat. Those who ate fruit gave a higher rating to the mental ability of the animals they wrote about than did those who ate the meat.

These finds highlight an integral aspect of eating animals: in so many ways the process of raising, killing, commodifying, and eating sentient creatures requires humans to spin protective narrative webs around their acts. Markman concludes, “These studies suggest that people who choose to eat meat have to grapple with the moral dilemma of eating an animal with a brain whether they realize it or not. Because of the importance of eating to our lives, we think about food animals as less complex than other animals.  This effect is particularly strong in the context of meat eating.”

It really makes me wonder what kind of deceptive strategies were employed by the backyard slaughterers I profiled over the past week.


-thanks to Mariann Sullivan for sending me this article.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

4 Responses to Meat on the Mind: The Psychology of Eating Animals

  1. CQ says:

    The fruit-vs-flesh experiment reminds me of this quote by Harvey Diamond: “You put a baby in a crib with an apple and a rabbit. If it eats the rabbit and plays with the apple, I’ll buy you a new car.”

    But I would amend it to say, instead of “If it eats the rabbit…” “If he eats the rabbit…” or “If she eats the rabbit…” Since I disagree with the use of “it” to describe an animal (I always choose “he” or “she” even if I don’t know the animal’s gender) then, to be consistent, I must object when the “it” is applied to a human (again, even if I don’t know his/her gender). Every word counts when you’re trying to change society’s perceptions.

    I finally figured out that in this experiment — “Meat eaters who envisioned animals raised on a bucolic pasture rated the minds of those animals higher than those who envisioned them being killed for food.” — Mr. Markham is referring to the same species of animals, pictured in different settings. Clearly, then, the food-obsessed twenty-something blogger whose post you shared with us a few days ago had never pictured those pigs in a pasture, or he couldn’t have done his dark deed. I hope he dreams about his own childhood, when he gently played with bunnies and contentedly ate apples. Anything to rouse him from his daytime reenactment of hog hell.

  2. Joanna Lucas says:

    In the words of a man who grew up, and worked, on a game bird hunting resort:

    “My attempts to tune out what was happening seemed to work better over time. Eventually, and to my relief, I noticed myself feeling less and less. I could have conversations and laugh and chat with my dad’s employees while we worked. Pretending to be normal became normal. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment that happens because it’s the sort of thing you can only vaguely sense years later. The inner conflict that weighed me down faded away and at the same time my tortuous sense of responsibility and empathy towards these animals drained away, freeing my hands to capture, kill and gut without the mortifying compunction that it used to bring. The sense emerged that I’d overcome an unnecessary and unhealthy sensitivity to the real and brutal world. My dad and his employees said I’d grown up and I believed it.”

    Read the full story here:

  3. Irmelinis says:

    Found your blog today, and I just love it. So many interesting subjects! Keep up the good work!

  4. martinab13 says:

    Great blog! Came across it via Twitter. We just began eating vegan earlier this year and are finding it a great change!

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