Researcher Network member, Monica Barnard, interrogates why vegans are often disliked by non-vegans and what we can do about this.
Why do meat-eaters hate vegans and what can you do about it?
In 2023, the prevalence of vegan and vegetarian diets in the UK is 8% (1). The rise in veganism in the West has, unfortunately, been met with prejudice and discrimination from meat-eaters. This may not come as a surprise – if you are vegan, you may have your own tales of derogation. In interviews, some have reported that their diet was met with negative reactions from friends and family (2), resulted in a breakup, and led to having meat forced upon them (3). Scientific research supports that meat-eaters do indeed have negative attitudes and stereotypes about vegans. The plethora of stereotypes includes ‘oversensitive’, ‘unhealthy’ and ‘unmasculine’ (4). One study found that attitudes towards vegans were as bad as attitudes towards a number of other stigmatised minority groups such as immigrants, gay people, and Black people (5). This is not to suggest that the implications of prejudice against vegans are remotely comparable to the implications of prejudice against these other groups; the point is simply that vegans are marginalised.
Bias against vegans is not limited only to attitudes and stereotypes. People who identify more strongly as meat-eaters are also less willing to rent to vegans, are more likely to avoid vegans and are less open to having friendships and romantic relationships with vegans (5). This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, as with any form of discrimination, it is simply not acceptable to discriminate against someone due to their diet. This should go without saying. Secondly, the fact that meat-eaters often hold negative attitudes about veganism suggests a barrier to them changing their own behaviour (6). Vegans are not vegan for the fun of it. Often, their goals are to reduce animal suffering and prevent climate change – goals that can be achieved more easily if many people join the cause. It is therefore problematic if a meat-eater’s bias against vegans stops them from reducing their own meat intake.
If vegans can understand why they get these negative responses from meat-eaters, they can change how they communicate, both to protect themselves and possibly to enable meat-eaters to change their diet. Evidence suggests that one reason is that veganism presents a threat to their identity as a moral person, resulting in a defensive response (7). Nobody likes to think of themselves as being a bad person, someone who does not care about cute animals suffering or climate-related devastation. Evidence suggests that morality forms a part of most people's identity (8). Just because someone eats meat, it does not mean they do not aim to be a good person. However, the existence of veganism paired with their own meat consumption indirectly contradicts this identity. The fact that vegans have chosen to avoid animal products suggests that they believe it is morally wrong to consume animal products, which implies that vegans might perceive meat-eaters to be immoral. In other words, veganism causes meat-eaters to perceive a threat to their moral self-concept. Indeed, meat eaters’ attitudes towards moral vegans (who are motivated by animal welfare or climate change) are significantly worse than attitudes towards health vegans (5), people who turn down the offer of meat for moral reasons are disliked more than those who turn it down due to their personal taste preference (9), and meat-eaters have a worse opinion of vegetarians if they first consider what vegetarians would think of them (7). These studies suggest the perception of being judged as morally inferior makes meat-eaters feel threatened and causes them to dislike vegetarians and vegans.
The effects of moral threat on prejudice have also been observed in the context of another moralised group: zero-wasters. Much like many vegans, zero-wasters aim to improve their impact on the planet by changing their behaviour. Zero-wasters minimise the amount of material sent to landfill by reducing their use of packaging as well as reusing and repurposing old packaging. In one study, people were asked their opinion of someone who supported a new zero-waste shop for moral reasons (10). People tended to rate the supporter positively – but only if they themselves had never had the opportunity to support the shop. If they had previously been given the opportunity to support the shop themselves but had chosen not to, they then rated the supporter less positively, liked the idea of the zero-waste shop less and also had lower regard for themselves. This indicates that it is not the zero-waste supporter themself that caused the negative reaction, but the fact that there is a disparity between the behaviour of the supporter and the participants. Moreover, this effect did not occur if the supporter of the zero-waste shop was financially motivated rather than morally motivated.
So, what does this mean for vegans? As meat-eaters have had the opportunity to eat vegan food and have chosen not to, this indicates that they are more likely to feel threatened by vegans and respond with derogation – particularly if the vegan is morally motivated. This has led some researchers to suggest that the existence of veganism as an identity may, ironically, be bad for the cause if it acts as a barrier to meat-eaters reducing their own meat consumption (6). But what if there is a way for vegans to prevent meat-eaters from feeling morally threatened? Theoretically, this could reduce prejudice against vegans and make meat-eaters more receptive to the idea of reducing their meat consumption.
There is currently little research into how vegans can avoid making meat-eaters feel morally threatened; however, a large body of research supports that just having contact (such as a conversation) with a member of a different group can reduce prejudice, discrimination, and some types of threat (11-13). It is important to note that these benefits only occur if the contact is positive and, unfortunately, negative contact can have the opposite effect (13). While this has not been tested on meat-eaters and vegans specifically, it suggests that simply being kind and friendly to a meat-eater could reduce their prejudice and make them more receptive to veganism. It is equally true that being unpleasant to a meat-eater could cause them to dislike vegans and close their mind to reducing their meat intake.
In interviews, meat-eaters have expressed annoyance at vegans forcefully discussing the benefits of veganism and trying to convince them to change their diet (2). It is easy to see why some vegans might do this – they are distressed by the injustices associated with animal agriculture and want to help – but this may not be the best way of achieving their aims and may, in fact, have the opposite of the intended effect.
Instead, vegans may decide to be tactical with how and when they share details of their morals. They might choose to emphasise their amoral reasons for being vegan – for example, kidney beans are much cheaper than steak and there are well-documented health benefits to following a plant-based diet (14). If meat-eaters do not feel morally threatened by vegans, they may be more receptive to their message in the future. If morals are discussed, it may be a good idea to actively demonstrate that the meat-eater is not being judged. For example, it is perfectly possible to highlight the fact that veganism is good for the environment while recognising that there are many other valid approaches to sustainability, such as switching to an electric car, holidaying locally instead of flying abroad and lobbying the government for change, some of which may even be more effective than veganism (15). They might acknowledge that they are far from perfect themselves. Perhaps they drive a diesel car or recently flew to Bali. Nobody has lived a perfect life and recognising this fact in conversation with their meat-eating friends could potentially reassure them that vegans do not necessarily see themselves as morally superior.
Research suggests that many vegans are already well aware that they are stigmatised. They feel anxious when revealing that they are vegan in public (5) and take measures to avoid annoying meat eaters such as concealing moral reasons for their diet (16,17). Some might argue that it is not the responsibility of vegans to tread on eggshells around meat-eaters to avoid causing offense, particularly when vegans are derogated themselves. This is a valid point, but it depends on their aims. If a vegan aims to avoid conflict with meat-eaters and improve their chances at influencing their behaviour, it may, in fact, be best to avoid threatening their identity as a moral person.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.
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