As an activist, I often consider the most effective way to get humans to acknowledge and accept all animals as sentient beings. In our society today, people have no problem identifying cats and dogs’ sentience, but when it comes to farm animals and especially fish, people have trouble recognizing their similarities to humans. Two psychological phenomena, cognitive dissonance and denial, are to blame. The theory of cognitive dissonance is often defined as an unpleasant feeling that arises when there is a conflict in someone’s established beliefs or ideas. When our established beliefs – like killing is wrong, and pets are family – conflict with our eating habits, cognitive dissonance comes into play.
Steve Loughnan, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne, is known for his research on meat-eating and cognitive dissonance, something he nicknamed “the meat paradox.” He looked at things that vegetarians and vegans value, as opposed to meat eaters’ values. Interestingly, he found some significant differences. Meat eaters have a more authoritarian tendency, and they were found to be more complacent with inequality. Loughnan also found that eating meat is more valued in men than in women, an unsurprising fact when observing society’s pressure on the masculine identity.
Another unsurprising truth came out of Loughnan’s research: when meat eaters think that an animal is less sentient, they are more willing to eat them. The job of activists is to then educate people that all animals feel pain and show significant levels of intelligence. This might help people avoid the stage of denial.
Denial, a form of repression, is an act of declaring something to be untrue, even though deep down, you know that it is true. After learning facts that conflict with your morals but are inconvenient to change, denial often occurs. Unfortunately, most people continue to deny facts about animal sentience. This common coping mechanism helps people feel better about something that conflicts with their beliefs.
To move out of the denial stage is challenging. Two primary factors are needed to accept what was previously denied: a receptive listener and a method of education that works for the listener. Willingness to act is essential for someone to actually go vegetarian or vegan.
While these psychological phenomena can make us activists upset and burnt out, it is important to remember that these common coping mechanisms also bring hope. The more we understand about the human mind, the easier it is to persuade people to consider vegetarianism or veganism, and as more and more research is done each day on coping mechanisms, we must keep in mind that we are another step closer to a vegan world.