Photos of Baby Animals Reduce One's Appetite for Meat

pink baby piglet with black spots

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I don’t know about you, but when I see a photo of a baby animal, involuntary AWWs issue forth from my mouth. And adult animals too. The first time I saw a truck full of cattle going to slaughter, their big doleful eyes staring out from the slits of the trailer ... I cooed and swooned, and then cried and decided I could never eat a cow again.

But the thing is, modern-day meat comes so thoroughly removed from its origin that cognitive dissonance is easy – especially for people who don't have an eye-opening cows-going-slaughter experience at the ripe age of 12. We get a tidy little packet of flesh wrapped in plastic that we can plop on a grill – and we don’t have to think about the fact that this was an animal – a breathing, thinking, feeling animal. Most people like animals, and thus, most people who consume them have a range of coping behaviors to not be overcome with guilt when doing so.

baby lambs

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Men and Women Have Different Strategies to Avoid Guilt Over Eating Animals

Psychologists Dr. Jared Piazza and Dr. Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University in the UK and Cecilie Olesen of University College London decided to take a further look into these relationships, noting that men and women use different strategies to avoid guilt over eating animals. And while I’m hesitant to make generalizations about gender, the researchers point out the following, based on previous research:

“ ... men, as a group, tend to endorse human domination beliefs and pro-meat justifications for the slaughter of farmed animals. That is, they’re more likely to agree with statements like, 'humans are at the top of the food chain and meant to eat animals.'"

Meanwhile, women are more likely to engage in less overt strategies to reduce the cognitive dissonance, the team notes, such as avoiding thoughts about the suffering of animals when eating meat. “These indirect strategies are useful, but they are more fragile. When confronted with the reality of animal slaughter ... it may be more difficult for women to avoid sympathising with the animals they find on their plates.”

In an article published by Lancaster University, Piazza explains that it was these mixed approaches – and women’s previously studied emotional "attunement" to baby features – that lead the team to wonder whether women might find meat particularly distasteful when it comes from a baby animal.

“Might women show greater tenderness towards a piglet than their adult counterpart, an adult pig?” Piaaza writes. “And might this lead women to reject meat, even when the end product looks the same for both animals? We wondered the same about men, but we did not expect them to show much movement in their appetite towards meat on account of their more positive relationship with meat.”

Well, one look at any animal welfare pamphlet and its cute baby creatures will tell you where this is going.

"Feeling tenderness towards a baby animal appears to be an oppositional force on appetite for meat for many people, especially women," the researchers discovered.

Baby chick sitting on top of an open human hand

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The study included three rounds of research in which 781 American men and women were presented with a meat dish accompanied by a photo of a baby animal or its adult counterpart. They were asked to rate their feelings of tenderness for the animal in the photo as well as how appetizing the dish looked, which they rated on a scale of 0 to 100.

Photos of Baby Animals Impacted Women's Appetites More Than Men's

When accompanied by a baby animal photo, women rated the meat dish on average 14 points less appetizing. Men’s rating dropped by four points on average.

Interestingly, these differences occurred even though the researchers had previously determined that both the men and women rated baby farm animals (chicks, piglets, calves, lambs) as highly worthy of their moral concern.

“Men seemed better able to separate their appraisals of baby animals from their appetite for meat,” Piazza writes. "Our findings may reflect women's greater emotional attunement towards babies and, by extension, their tendency to empathise more with baby animals.”

While the authors note that the study did not follow up with the participants to see if they reduced their meat consumption after the study, it is interesting to note that in the U.S., at least, women do indeed appear to eat less meat than do men. One 2014 study found that in the U.S., 74 percent of current vegetarians and vegans are female – and 69 percent of former vegetarians and vegans are female as well.

“What our research does suggest is that appeals to care-taking emotions, which are so important for how we treat members of our own species," the authors conclude, “might be beneficial for getting people to rethink their relationship to meat. This seems especially true for women.”

baby goat

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The study, Are Baby Animals Less Appetizing? Tenderness toward Baby Animals and Appetite for Meat, was published in Anthrozoös.