Everyone's getting upset because horses are turning up in our dinners rather than cows. But is it possible that this 'scandal' is revealing more about our relationships with animals and conflicts in our inner psyches, than the nutritional content of our meals?
We develop relationships with certain animals, such as horses, dogs and cats, so we assume they have 'minds'. But other animals, such as cows, are not kept as pets or companions, and therefore we decide they are 'mindless', in comparison to horses.
A series of recent psychology experiments demonstrates the mental somersaults we are prepared to turn in order to eat some animals, while befriending others.
The research also reveals our malleable nature, explaining how we're manipulated into waging war and killing others.
Psychologists Brock Bastian, Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam and Helena Radke started their investigations into this subject because they were interested in the way we resolve inner conflicts.
Their study, recently published in the academic journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is based on the fact meat is central to diets around the world, yet most of us are also fond of animals, becoming disturbed by the prospect of harm to them. This inconsistency between a love for animals and enjoyment of meat, creates what the authors of this research refer to as a psychological "meat paradox".
We are conflicted because our concern for animal welfare is at odds with our culinary preferences. So the authors argue, people therefore avoid thinking about where meat comes from; the processes it goes through to get onto their tables. This involves a denial of the living and mental qualities of the animals, from which our meals are extracted.
One reason therefore the horse meat scandal is so emotionally disturbing is that we have suddenly been forced to confront unpalatable truths we prefer to be in denial about.
Brock Bastian and colleagues based at the Universities of Queensland and Melbourne, plus the University of Kent, contend that meat eaters routinely mentally disengage from the origins of meat. This reduces the strain aroused by enjoying meat but disliking the harm that animals endure to produce it.
Secondly the kinds of mental capacities we feel exist in animals we view as companions, such as horses, and which facilitate our relationships with them, now become inconvenient, if they also exist in cows, which we eat.
So the psychologists speculate people deny the existence of such mental capacities in animals they devour.
The authors of this new research entitled Don't Mind Meat? The Denial of Mind to Animals Used for Human Consumption contend that recognizing that the animals we scoff have minds makes them similar to us in morally important ways, and this recognition conflicts with our use of animals for food.
People are afforded moral rights on the basis that they possess minds and it is this possession of a mind that affords us the right to humane treatment. Being reminded that animals have minds, but are killed for food, creates moral and psychological conflicts for meat eaters.
The authors argue that when people want to reduce the conflict between eating meat and their moral concern for animals, denying them minds is a particularly useful strategy. This is an extremely important psychological process and could explain atrocities and wars through history and all around the world; people deny minds in enemies to justify their ill treatment. It might also explain why the mentally ill have been particularly prone to harsh discrimination.
In the first experiment conducted by Brock Bastian (School of Psychology, University of Queensland) and colleagues, participants indicated the edibility of various animals and as predicted, animals considered appropriate for chomping were rated as having less of a mind than animals considered inappropriate.
In the second experiment participants looked at a picture of a cow and a sheep surrounded by grass. When either the cow or sheep was presented, it was described as living on a farm, including the description:
"This lamb/cow will be moved to other paddocks, and will spend most of its time eating grass with other lambs/cows". When the cow or sheep was presented again in another condition of the experiment, it was described as being bred for meat consumption, including the following description: "This lamb/cow will be taken to an abattoir, killed, butchered, and sent to supermarkets as meat products for humans".
After reading each statement and looking at the pictures, participants rated the extent to which each animal possessed mental capacities. The results were that when reminded that an animal would be used for food, meat eaters denied it having a mind.
In the third experiment participants were explicitly instructed to write an essay about the processes involved in raising cattle/sheep on the farm right through to the eventual packaging of meat for human consumption. Participants were also told they would be sampling beef/lamb. In another condition of the experiment participants were asked to write the same essay but were told they would be eating apples.
At this point the experimenter placed a bowl of apples and a plate of appetizingly presented beef/lamb on the table. Participants then proceeded to write their essay in full view of the food they were about to sample.
The results of the experiment were that participants denied mental capacities to food animals when they were asked to think about the origins of meat. However, this denial was significantly stronger for participants who were told they were going to sample the animal. Participants who wrote about the origins of meat but were told they would sample an apple, did not deny mind or mental capacities to animals to the same degree, indicating they did not experience the same level of mental conflict.
By denying minds to animals, people bring their beliefs in line with eating meat. We change our minds and turn mental somersaults in order to justify to ourselves what we do.
This research has implications well beyond meat eating and dietary choice. Denying minds to others appears a widespread mechanism by which atrocities, wars and other harm to others is metered out.
This study also could explain why leaders keen to go to war and needing to take a more ambivalent population into war behind them, seek a pre-emptive strike. Once hostilities have been started people tend to believe the enemy deserves being killed - our behaviour influences our thoughts - rather than the other way round.
The study suggests a novel means by which wars and atrocities could be prevented in the future, as well as avoiding meat scandals. We could educate ourselves more, or be more educated, about the mental capacities of our enemies, and those we propose to eat.
This research suggests the real reason the horsemeat scandal bothers us so much is for deeper emotional reasons, than we are prepared to admit.
We become psychologically disturbed about killing or eating things that are too much like us.
Follow Dr Raj Persaud on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrRajPersaud