Loving some animals, eating others: Food preferences in childhood

New TABLE blog post by Luke McGuire - Loving some animals, eating others: Food preferences in childhood

How do we decide which animals to eat and which to care for? We treat the pets we live with as beloved members of our families, but as a society we are willing to accept great harm towards cows, pigs and chickens for the benefit of cheap and accessible meat and dairy products. This blog post explores how our moral attitudes towards animals and animal-source foods change between childhood and adulthood, drawing on research from social and developmental psychology.

This blog post is written by Dr Luke McGuire, who is a lecturer at the University of Exeter Department of Psychology with interests in social & moral development across childhood, adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Read the full blog post: Loving some animals, eating others: Food preferences in childhood

Leave your comments below!

Interesting post and an important discussion to have. There are, of course, many factors that influence our attitudes toward eating other animals (or certain plants!) and moral principles, social conventions, and personal autonomy are very intertwined. Our attitudes about animals reflect deeply engrained influences including religion, what we consider “family”, our responsibilities to others. (I, for instance, often think about why Western society seems to be sadder when a child dies than an older person.)

The First Nations and Native American communities do not consider themselves to be separate from the animals in the way most Western cultures do. In my conversations with Haida and Southwestern US tribal members, they consider all of nature to have will and animacy down to the sea and the rocks. We are all connected. That, however, does not mean that they don’t eat other animals. But they are very careful to respect and thank the creatures that have sacrificed themselves, often with very special rituals, and to harvest resources sustainably. I think this is another indication that we are not “born specieist”.

We may choose to eat certain animals, but those we do should be treated with dignity and we should be very thankful. I think the movement toward “Less Meat, Better Meat” can help do that if we keep pushing for high animal welfare and for ensuring that good quality fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts are readily accessible to everyone. Meat would be more expensive, but should be considered less as a staple as a supplement to our diets. If governments have the courage to enact measures like this, against opposition which there inevitably will be, then social and personal attitudes will slowly shift. We also should be making sure that everyone has experience of growing food, learning to prepare meals, and visiting farms that are raising animals sustainably, perhaps by twinning every school with a farm.

1 Like

A valuable study in that it confirms a generally accepted belief that children start life with an innate love of animals that becomes compartmentalized over time such that it drives different behaviours towards different animal groups. The arguments justifying the eating of animals run from resisting any encroachment on what is viewed as a personal right to choose what one eats, to fears of nutritional inadequacy to more pervasive, deeper, and less conscious attitudes originating in societal norms, religions, cultures and other influences.
Given research that would seem to suggest children do not start out holding such beliefs and values, it seems clear that conditioning plays a role through influences such as advertising, family, societal and other pressures. This process leads to cognitive dissonance – holding two seemingly contradictory beliefs simultaneously (I love animals but I’m fine with eating them), which is a psychological mechanism that helps deal with behaviours that don’t align with beliefs.
This leads me to wonder if there’s been any work done on the psychological impact of this mental state? Do we know at a subconscious level that this there is a split and does this cause trauma?

1 Like

Hello. I’m a vet, pretty old now, but this question has always intrigued me. When I qualified (1981) most of my peers were meat eaters and the prevailing sentiment was that farming of animals is a necessary and honourable way of using the land and producing food. I know many of us were queasy about certain farming (and laboratory) practices, especially intensive farming, but the mood was “in general animal agriculture is good.” Today I find that many young vets are vegetarian or vegan and that they are often very wary of animal agriculture. I suggest vets might be an interesting goup of people to study.

1 Like