Why Your Friends and Family Can't Seem To Go Vegan
From All-Creatures.org Animal Rights/Vegan Activist Strategies Articles Archive

FROM David Jack James
September 2020

To avoid the moral dilemma of accepting responsibility for the suffering and slaughter of sentient beings, people will instinctively disassociate themselves from any emotional connection to the chickens, pigs, cows, turkeys, fish, sheep, ducks, and other animals, in order to reduce the intrinsic value of these animals, and to eliminate any ethical concern.

cognitive dissonance

There’s a psychological phenomenon that explains why intelligent, compassionate, self-proclaimed “animal lovers” continue to consume animals and animal products, even though they are aware of the pain and suffering and violence that the animals endure. It’s COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, the uncomfortable tension that people experience when they try to maintain two contradictory core beliefs or values at the same time.

Most people grew up consuming animals and animal products, and have continued to do so for their entire lives because of family traditions, ingrained cultural habits, convenience, and sensory pleasures.

However, most people also sustain a core value that harming and killing animals for taste pleasure (or for any kind of trivial gratification) is wrong. Abundant evidence exists that the animal agriculture industry inflicts horrendous, prolonged pain and misery on these animals, but from childhood most of us have been duped by relentless propaganda from the meat, dairy, and egg industries, which has manipulated us into ignoring what happens to the sentient beings who suffer and die to create and become “food.”

Furthermore, when we were children, adults we loved and respected told us that consuming flesh, organs, and bodily secretions (dairy and eggs) was not just acceptable, but also healthy, necessary, humane, and guilt-free. We believed them, and we learned to block out the suffering of the animals, even though we maintain that we are animal lovers. At a very young age, harming, exploiting, and killing animals became a habitual part of life for most people, which is sustained because of the deceptive and devious marketing that constantly bombards us every day. And all of this happens because our brains are actually hard-wired to prevent us from focusing on what causes the paradoxical discord of cognitive dissonance.

A built-in defense mechanism for moral dilemmas

American psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. Research shows that when people have a core belief or value, and they are then presented with new information that conflicts with that core belief or value, they tend to reject the new information and cling to their original core belief or value—even if the new information is rational, readily available, irrefutably backed up by concrete evidence, and right in front of their eyes!

For most people, it is too problematic to make the connection between the living, emotional animals who suffered, and the objectified “food,” the neatly packaged and prepared flesh, organs, and bodily secretions of those animals who endured misery and torture before they were killed. Cognitive dissonance is a defense mechanism that prevents people from thinking about the animals at all. They subconsciously convince themselves that the “food” is an object rather than something derived from an emotional individual with a central nervous system and full self-awareness, who suffered immensely and then was slaughtered.

To avoid the moral dilemma of accepting responsibility for the suffering and slaughter of sentient beings, people will instinctively disassociate themselves from any emotional connection to the chickens, pigs, cows, turkeys, fish, sheep, ducks, and other animals, in order to reduce the intrinsic value of these animals, and to eliminate any ethical concern.

But, of course, these animals who are exploited and killed for food are fundamentally no different from the dogs, cats, horses, parrots, and other traditional companion animals we choose to value and love. All of these animals seek attention and affection, form bonds with friends, care about their babies, feel emotions, can experience pain, and want to live.

A Cerebral Tug-of-War

Cognitive dissonance causes people to compartmentalize their ethics, as they desperately try to protect their original core belief or value (on a subconscious level). They rationalize, deny, disregard, and attack. The mental game is to convince themselves that there is actually no conflict at all, in order to remain comfortable rather than change their behavior to align with their genuine ethical beliefs.

This cerebral tug-of-war can cause a lot of internal guilt, which propels people go to extreme lengths in order to avoid facing that their food choices are not in accordance with their values.

Simply put, it’s easier for people to dismiss and avoid processing the new information rather than face their complicity and responsibility in the suffering and violence. Some people viciously attack or attempt to discredit the source who presents the new conflicting information. When people become irate and hateful toward vegans, it’s usually because they know that they are causing pain and suffering to animals, which clashes with their core value that animal cruelty is wrong—but they lash out at the vegans rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance and consider changing their behavior.

Facing the Gruesome Reality versus Deflecting with Irrational Defenses

Some people rely on bizarre justifications for their consumption of animals and animal products, such as “Plants feel pain,” “Lions kill animals,” “Humans have canine teeth,” or “I need protein,” to name a few common excuses. Despite abundant scientific evidence that plants lack central nervous systems to generate pain responses; that unlike humans, lions are wild carnivorous animals lacking the capacity to think rationally and behave morally; that human canine teeth are rounded and designed for grinding rather than tearing through raw flesh; and that the building blocks of protein (amino acids) can all be derived directly from consuming plants, which is how all animals get their protein; people will still cling to these illogical, groundless excuses rather than examine the plausibility and absurdity of what they are saying.

Acknowledging that food we consume comes from suffering and violence means accepting that we indirectly caused the suffering and violence, that we were misinformed by people we loved and respected, that we were deceived by corporate propaganda and lies, and that we fiercely defended our choices and denied anything contrary—for our entire lives. Of course, this process involves facing hardcore truths about what we have been unknowingly supporting, which will make us feel terrible about ourselves.

And this is what makes considering veganism very difficult for most people, even though overwhelming scientific evidence shows that there is no biological or nutritional requirement for humans to consume animals or animal products. Furthermore, it is very well-documented that animal agriculture has a major destructive impact on climate change, widespread air and water pollution, water wastage and water scarcity, deforestation, land degradation, topsoil erosion, species extinction, habitat destruction, desertification, ocean dead zones, worldwide human hunger and starvation, antibiotic resistance, and the development of zoonotic diseases that become deadly pandemics. But to accept all of this new information, most people must first understand and eliminate what is blocking them.

Overcoming the Obstructive Psychological Phenomenon

Cognitive dissonance is a major obstacle to ending a person’s support of the standard suffering and slaughter inflicted on animals by the meat, dairy, and egg industries, because it involves an emotional detoxification process that is extremely hard and uncomfortable for people who have been consuming animals and animal products for their entire lives.

Obviously, people don’t want to cope with the appalling realization of what they have been supporting since childhood: lifelong pain, misery, and terror inflicted on gentle, harmless animals, for nothing more than trivial taste pleasure. They will feel tremendous guilt and regret when they take responsibility for all of this unnecessary violence. And that is what triggers cognitive dissonance. But pretending that the pain and suffering isn’t happening doesn’t mean that they aren’t causing it. In fact, they are the reason for the pain and suffering until they make the intentional decision to stop being a part of it.

Hopefully, understanding that this psychological phenomenon exists and that it is hard-wired in our brains will help those of us who are trying to present the vegan message to our friends and family who are resistant and adamantly opposed to hearing it. When people become aware of what happens to these animals, and then are brave enough to deal with the cognitive dissonance that they experience, they will finally make compassionate, ethical choices that are consistent with who they really are.

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