Consider these odd statistics: nine out of ten Americans say they oppose intensive confinement for pigs and hens, yet the same number routinely support intensive confinement by eating pork and eggs. What causes this huge difference between belief and action, and as animal advocates, what can we do about it? One explanation is found in cognitive dissonance, the mental process by which people recognize and reconcile differences between belief and action. When people act inconsistently with a strong belief, the tension can cause discomfort and, with a drive as strong as hunger, compel resolution. The most common response is to engage in denial, a force that psychiatrist Christopher Bollas calls “the need to be innocent of a troubling recognition.”
In this post, I explore five ways omnivores cope with dissonance by denying ethical responsibility. For simplicity, I’ll call these mental techniques “knowledge denial,” “lack of choice,” “moral balancing,” “deference to authority,” and “victim blaming.” By learning to recognize these denial techniques, we can better respond to those who use them.
Knowledge Denial. One common coping method is to deny knowledge of the inhumane treatment of animals. For example, there’s no shortage of information showing or describing how humans produce animals for consumption, but many simply prefer not to know. Thus, an omnivorous friend told me she had to stop reading Skinny Bitch because she feared the graphic discussion of factory farming might make her give up meat. “People do not believe lies because they have to,” said journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, “but because they want to.”
One way to get people to overcome this knowledge barrier is to pay them. Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), for example, has launched an information campaign it calls “pay per view.” Omnivores are paid $1.00 to watch a four-minute video about factory farming, and it seems to work. FARM reports that “Follow-up surveys demonstrate that over 50% of respondents have reduced animal product consumption after watching the video.”
Lack of Choice. Another much-used denial technique is to pretend to have no choice. In one study, divinity students were told the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan and then told to walk to another building to deliver a speech. One group was told they were late for the speech, while another group believed they had ample time. Students in both groups met a man in their path who needed help. Of those not rushing, 63 percent stopped and helped. But only 10 percent of the rushing students stopped. Those who didn’t stop likely felt that since they were late, they had no choice but to hurry past.
People who say they must consume meat or dairy for protein, calcium, or other health reasons employ the “lack of choice” denial technique. This position seems especially popular among those who have tried a plant-based diet but later returned to meat. One response with such people is to ask exactly how much protein or calcium they think they need – people often have no idea what the recommended daily allowances are, which might make them reflect on their position. Another is to mention that elephants, horses and many other animals are vegan yet get plenty of protein and calcium from plants.
Moral Balancing. The denial technique of “moral balancing” involves downplaying unethical behavior and highlighting good behavior. Sociology professor Stanley Cohen narrates the self-message of those who use this technique: “In a moral atlas of our whole lives, this [behavior] is not significant; don’t judge us just by this. In the moral ledger, the overall balance is in our favor.” Cohen tells of Lithuanian villagers who turned over their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis and moved into the empty houses. When questioned later, the villagers downplayed their guilt by saying they had previously treated Jews kindly.
My grandmother was skilled at moral balancing: when I sent her images of factory farms, she defended her own consumption by saying she ate only organic meat. Like my grandmother, those who speak proudly of eating “humane” animal foods engage in a form of moral balancing. For many, the occasional cage-free egg or grass-fed steak provides all the ethical justification they need to ignore images from factory farms. Here’s one idea for reaching such “conscious consumers”: explain the realities of “humane” animal foods. Information is available at www.humanemyth.org.
Deference to Authority. Some blame a higher authority for their support of animal cruelty. For example, we’ve heard the argument that the Bible gives humans “dominion” over animals. This blame-shifting technique is also seen in references to toothless laws that claim to protect animals. Thus, the American Meat Institute asserts, with little basis in fact, that “Federal laws govern … humane treatment of animals.” This message implies that federal lawmakers have chosen the level at which farmed animals are to be protected, and meat producers merely do what they’re told. Yet this position ignores the fact that federal laws actually provide few protections for farmed animals, and even those few protections are routinely violated.
Victim Blaming. When all else fails, there’s always “victim blaming.” Because people want to live in what one researcher calls a “just world,” when innocent victims suffer random misfortune, it’s common for observers to rationalize the outcome by denigrating the victim. The idea that there is something wrong with the victim, and that he or she had it coming, helps to make sense of an otherwise unjust situation. Thus, in one study, participants were asked to state their opinions of two stabbing victims. One victim could have avoided the stabbing by not walking alone, while the other victim had no ability to avoid being stabbed. Bizarrely, participants had a higher opinion of the victim who could have avoided the stabbing because he made an unwise choice and deserved to be stabbed, and this outcome fit the criteria for a just world. They denigrated the victim who had no control over his stabbing because believing something was wrong with him was the best way to explain his otherwise undeserved misfortune.
Some use the victim blaming technique to devalue and dismiss animal suffering. Because people want to believe in a just world, they tell themselves stories to explain why animals “deserve” cruel treatment. Animals, they argue, lack intelligence or self-awareness; they were born to be consumed, skinned, or tested on; they are vicious wild animals that would kill us if we didn’t kill them first. These and similar theories are advanced to explain why animals “deserve” ill treatment.
When seeking to educate those in denial, the way you present your message is the key to success. Cognitive dissonance can make people entrenched and unreceptive to alternative theories. “The moment we want to believe something,” said George Bernard Shaw, “we suddenly see all the arguments for it and become blind to the arguments against it.” Thus, it’s best to use a soft touch and avoid sounding dogmatic, preachy or argumentative. When people think someone is trying to persuade them to change their views, they become defensive. Nick Cooney, author of Change of Heart, reports that when he speaks to school groups, students tend to be less receptive when told he’s there to convince them to become vegetarian, but are more receptive when told he’s there to educate them about factory farming. These results are consistent with a study which looked at the effect of a speaker telling students that teenage driving should be banned. Among students who were not warned in advance that the speaker would try to persuade them, two-thirds changed their minds. But among those who were warned, only half changed their minds. This study and Cooney’s personal experience suggest that when possible, we should try to present information in an objective way rather than trying to persuade listeners to adopt our point of view. If people are allowed to draw their own conclusions from troubling data or images, they’ll often come to the right conclusions. Animal advocates can overcome the denial that flows from cognitive dissonance, provided we recognize its symptoms and address the issues with a soft touch.
 J.S. Swanson and J.A. Mensch, “Animal Welfare: Consumer Viewpoints,” accessed 8-31-11 at http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/avian/swanson.pdf.
 Christopher Bollas, Being a Character: Pyschoanalysis and Self-Recognition (London, Routledge, 1993).
 Farm Animal Rights Movement, “Pay Per View,” accessed March 15, 2012 at http://farmusa.org/PPV/.
 John M. Darley & C. Daniel Batson, "From Jerusalem to Jericho": A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior, 27 J. Personality & Social Psychology 100 (1973).
 Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering (Polity Press, Cambridge 2001).
 American Meat Institute, “Animal Health/Welfare,” accessed 9-2-11 at http://www.meatami.com/ht/d/sp/i/243/pid/243.
 M. Lerner and D. Miller, “Just World Research and Attribution Process: Looking Back and Ahead,” Psychological Bulletin 85.5 (1978).
 A. P. MacDonald, “More on the Protestant Ethic,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 39.1 (1972).
 Nick Cooney, Change of Heart (Lantern Books, New York, 2011), 112.
 J. Freedman and D. Sears, “Warning, Distraction, and Resistance to Influence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1 (1965): 145-55.
Dave Simon is a lawyer and the Director of Campaigns for Animal Protection and Rescue League (APRL). His forthcoming book, Meatonomics, explores the insidious effects on consumers and taxpayers of the economic forces underlying meat and dairy.