Judgemental: social attitudes towards vegetarians
As you may remember from our Judgemental episode we interviewed Dr. Julia Minson at the Wharton School about her research on “Do Gooder Derogation” – the phenomenon of people thinking worse of those who are behaving morally or prosocially (PDF of the Minson and Monin paper).
Listen to my full extended interview with her (she laughs endearingly like Marge Simpson doesn’t she?):
Some of you might be questioning the whole premise saying to yourself “hey, do people really think that vegetarians are doing good?”. But that is what Julia found.
Even though people tend to rate themselves as better than others, and (Dr Minson found) more moral than others, even meat-eaters rated vegetarians as more moral than average (i.e. other) meat-eaters.
Some other tidbits from the study:
- People rated vegetarians more negatively when they thought vegetarians were more judgemental
- In an experiment where people were randomly assigned to a condition in which they had to consider how much vegetarians would judge them morally, they later rated vegetarians more negatively
- Meat eaters expected vegetarians to judge them three times more negatively than vegetarians actually judged them (-1.11 vs -0.33)
- When participants were given the opportunity to negatively rate vegetarians they expressed more pro-vegetarian attitudes
The conversation led me to thinking about “anti social punishment”, where individuals punish those who are more prosocial/generous than the norm (which I mentioned to Julia).
The conversation also made me think about how people manage status and moral inconsistency.
Recently I read “Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite“, in which Robert Kurzban argues that moral inconsistency is the result of our minds having different components with different goals.
Say: One part of your mind wants to get up early and go for a jog and another wants to sleep in. Kurzban explains that we enforce moral rules because we want other people to follow them, but there’s another part of our minds that wants us to disregard the moral or social norms and take advantage of whatever benefits we can get. This makes us all hypocrites. (See Kurzban giving the gist of his argument)
To me the Minson and Monin paper is a good example of how people are competitive about their moral status.
From an evolutionary perspective advertising that you are a consistently moral person – who for example keeps promises and avoids inflicting suffering on others – makes you a more attractive partner for social exchanges.
If you think someone is making you look bad by being more moral than you or simply judging you as being less moral, then they can do damage to your social reputation.
In turn you must derogate them, that is, advertise that they are not such great social exchange partners either. For example, participants in the Minson & Monin study described vegetarians as “weird”, “preachy” and “sadistic”.
That’s why people were more accepting of vegetarian attitudes when they had a chance to first derogate vegetarians; the attitudes were less threatening when individuals felt that they had done something to climb back up in the moral hierarchy.
This leads to some conclusions
- People are always going to look hard for perceived hypocrisy on the part of organizations that make them feel like they are not behaving morally. After all, I’ve been told that “vegetarians are hypocrites because Peta kills animals”, but they didn’t stop to level the same criticism at the food industry lobbying group that runs the “Peta Kills” website. (Peta runs shelters which have very high kill rates; Peta blames this on taking in desperate cases). Unless someone challenges your moral reputation, there’s no need to search for moral inconsistencies.
- Those who consider moral goodness and consistency to be an important part of their self identity are going to be even more likely to derogate those who they perceive are trying to “one up” them morally especially in the animal domain. I have found that people who really value their relationships companion animals like cats and dogs to be very reactive to discussions about meat eating.
- Above and beyond judgement the perceived moral goodness of vegetarianism/veganism is what causes the negative backlash. If people really believe “I make my food choices and you make yours and they’re all morally equivalent” there would be no reason to derogate vegetarians, certainly if they are minding their own business in the way Julia describes in our interview.
About Diana Fleischman
Dr Diana Fleischman co-hosted the show in 2011 and 2012, supplying some American irreverence. Media appearances include discussing atheism on BBC TV’s “The Big Questions” and her research on the BBC World Service. She lectures in comparative psychology (the evolution of the mind) at the University of Portsmouth.