While some vegetarians yearn for meat (and occasionally give into temptation), others who eschew animal products find meat repulsive. Those who go veggie for moral reasons — as opposed to those who do it for their health — are particularly likely to find meat disgusting, even if they previously enjoyed its taste.
According to a new study from a University of Exeter team, it isn’t just vegetarians who find the look of meat disgusting, either — sometimes, meat-eaters do too. And in a world where many of us are being encouraged to give up meat for the sake of the environment, the researchers suggest that harnessing this disgust could be a way of reducing intake when other techniques fail.
The 711 participants in the study were a mix of people with different diets — 56% identified as omnivores, 28% as flexitarians (i.e. those who are sometimes vegetarian and sometimes omnivorous), and 15% vegetarians, some of whom were vegan and some pescatarian.
First, an implicit association task (IAT) measured implicit attitudes towards meat. Participants were presented with a series of images of foods, which they had to classify as meat or carbs, and words like “foul” or “mouth-watering”, which they had to classify as “delicious” or “disgusting”. The participants sorted both images and words into categories using left and right keys on their keyboard: for example, on one side they might see “carbs OR disgusting” and on the other “meat OR delicious” (in other trials, “meat” was paired with “disgusting” instead). If you find meat delicious, then responding should be faster when “meat” and “delicious” share the same key, the logic goes (though the IAT itself has faced controversy).
Next, the team looked at explicit responses to meat. The same pictures of meat and carbs were used, with participants asked to rate the images on a scale from 0 to 100 according to taste, how likely they would be to eat the food, and feelings of disgust. Finally, the team measured self-control, how much meat participants ate, and how long they had followed their particular diet. A follow-up survey, six months later, repeated these measures.
Vegetarians exhibited the highest level of disgust in both the explicit and implicit tests, with flexitarians second highest above omnivores. Carbs, on the other hand, were liked equally across all groups.
Vegetarians don’t like meat: it’s hardly breaking news. But what was interesting about the results was the relationship between meat disgust and intake in the other two groups. In both the omnivore and flexitarian sample those who felt higher explicit meat disgust also had lower meat intake.
The follow-up study provided further evidence that disgust has a tangible impact on how people eat. Flexitarians who showed an increase in their levels of explicit disgust of meat over the six month period had also decreased their meat intake by the time of the second survey.
Encouraging disgust of meat could, therefore, be a way of encouraging people to cut down on meat. The team points to previous research that suggests many omnivores simply repress feelings of disgust around eating sentient, emotional creatures: harnessing this knowledge and increasing disgust could be one way of persuading someone that life is better vegetarian. However, it may not be a foolproof strategy — at present, it’s not clear in which direction the effect is working. Is disgust causing people to cut down on meat, or is cutting down on meat increasing disgust? Further research could look more closely at the direction of cause-and-effect.