Meatless Mondays doesn’t mean no meat for most

Guilt won’t stop consumers from eating meat, it changes how they cook it.

May 21, 2021

4 Min Read
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How do you like your steak? It can say a lot about how you feel in regards to meat.

Research from the University at Buffalo School of Management shows “Meatless Mondays” won’t stop people from eating meat or even feeling guilty about it. They just change the way they prepare a meal with it.

The study is soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and sheds light on why consumers behave this way. Researchers found even with increasing animal welfare concerns and the rise in plant-based meat appearing, the Gallup poll shows 90 percent of consumers eat meat still.

Sunyee Yoon, PhD, assistant professor of marketing in the UB School of Management, says the study consisted of undergraduate students as well as nationally representative adults (age range 18-77). The survey screened out individuals who identify as vegans or vegetarians since they already refrain from meat and are considered a biased sample. Yoon worked with Danny Kim, a doctoral researcher, to study 1,500 consumers and a variety of meat options, including chicken, beef, and pork.

“Meat eating is thoroughly ingrained in most cultures,” says Yoon. “Our research shows that when faced with the moral issue of animal suffering, most people will seek to defend their meat consumption by emphasizing the health benefits it can provide.”

In each study, they elicited feelings of guilt by asking people to think about the animals’ emotions and humanlike characteristics; in one case, they even adapted a real campaign run by animal welfare groups that featured a pig saying, “I am me, not meat!”

Then, the subjects chose between two meat dishes (for example, healthy grilled chicken vs. deep-fried chicken nuggets) or two nonmeat options (hearty grilled veggies vs. teriyaki stir fry). Some studies included hypothetical menu items, while others offered the choice between real food items for participants to eat.

Yoon says there are ways to reduce the guilt of consumers. She says companies that make products with humanely treated animals—for example, cage-free chickens or grass-fed beef—emphasizing it on product packages or in advertisements can be very effective in reducing consumer guilt about eating meat even when human-like characteristics of animals are salient.

“One of the studies in our research showed that when consumers learned that the beef sticks, they were about to were made from humanely treated cows, their need to justify eating meat was lessened. Thus, I suggest that the humane treatment of animals is important in dissipating consumer guilt about meat consumption,” says Yoon.

The researchers analyzed the data and found that the relatively small number of people who reported a low commitment to eating meat did opt for a vegetable-based dish.

Most other consumers, however, selected the healthy meat dish over the tastier, unhealthy option to reduce their sense of guilt. The only time the researchers did not observe this effect was when they told people the meat producer was certified for its humane treatment of animals, as consumers no longer felt a need to justify their meal choice.

 Yoon says meat-eating consumers could feel guilty because their demand for meat brings harm to animals. However, it does not mean that consumers always feel guilty whenever they eat meat. She added they often dissociate the animal from the food on the plate (i.e., eating beef without thinking about cows). Or they also tend to deny the idea that animals have a humanlike mind because harming mindless animals makes them feel less guilty without changing their dietary practices. However, once animals’ humanlike characteristics become salient by external cues—for example, advertisements that feature humanized animals—consumers start feeling guilty about animal suffering.

“Psychologically, when people feel guilty about their behavior, they tend to justify the behavior rather than changing it. This phenomenon is more pronounced when the behavior is deeply ingrained in their lives, because in such a case, justifying the behavior is easier than changing the behavior. Eating meat is the norm in most countries, especially in the U.S. It follows, then, that for consumers who are committed to eating meat, such guilt-inducing messages that humanize animals can increase their motivation to justify their meat-eating diet,” says Yoon. “As we found, when people feel guilty over animal welfare issues, they don’t tend to avoid meat — instead, they go with a healthier option to justify their lifestyle.”

Yoon says there are a few things BEEF readers should know:

  • If your goal is to promote meat products, don’t try to humanize animals in advertisements. It can make consumers feel guilty about harming and eating animals.

  • When your target consumers are hesitant to eat meat for some moral reasons (e.g., “eating animals is not morally right because animals have humanlike feelings”), emphasize health benefits rather than the tastiness of your meat products. The health benefits of meat provide a strong excuse for eating meat.

  • Treat animals in a humane way and use it as a selling point. It can reduce consumer guilt about eating meat. 

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