Poorer People Eat Meat to Boost Their Social Status

CC BY 2.0. Karlis Dambrans

Study finds that a desire for status drives meat consumption more than hunger or perceived nutritional benefits.

Throughout history, the people who ate meat were the strong, powerful ones; thus, meat became associated with strength and power. This perception of meat still persists today and is the subject of a new study from Australia, published in Appetite journal. Researchers Eugene Chan of Monash University and Natalina Zlatevska of the University of Technology Sydney hypothesized that, if this is the case, then people with less social status would try to eat more meat to compensate for the status they lack.

From the abstract: "Three experiments tested this premise. Participants who felt low on subjective socio-economic status preferred meat-based foods compared to participants who felt high on it. The effect is driven by a desire for status and not by felt hunger or power and not generalizable to plant foods."

One of the experiments was to give the participants a "Beast Burger" that was described as either meat-based or vegetarian, despite having identical nutritional profiles and packaging. An increased desire for the meat burger was demonstrated only by those participants who perceived themselves as low on the socio-economic scale.

While the abstract doesn't divulge actual consumption amounts, a press release cites other research that has found that "blue-collar workers and lower-earning households in France and the UK consume more red and processed meat than higher income households." This aligns with the Australian findings and is interesting because meat is expensive relative to plant-based protein sources. The fact that they do eat so much of it is a disturbing reminder of the factory farms that raise animals for cheap meat. We need to get back to a time when meat was treasured and brought out only for special occasions.

The study is relevant to many groups and companies, from those advocating for reduced meat consumption and animal rights, to farmers, producers, and lobbyists, to public health officials, as it offers valuable insight into the psychology behind meat-eating. From a UTS press release:

"The researchers hypothesize that nudging people to feel either higher or lower in socio-economic status, for example through social comparison or marketing messages, could influence levels of meat consumption."

In a world where we need to slash meat consumption drastically, let's hope activists and public health officials can figure out a way to make people feel confident about their lives, and therefore in less need of a climate-damaging meat fix.