The Gross-Out Factor: Can We Use Disgust to Turn People Off Meat?


The animal protection movement spends an enormous amount of time, energy, and money on vegan outreach. Whether convincing individuals to stop eating meat actually saves animal lives is a question for another time. No matter where you stand on that issue, though, it’s undeniable that we must change the ways others think about eating animals if we want a kinder, more compassionate world for farmed animals, and that if we’re going to focus on changing people’s minds, we should do so in ways that are actually effective.

Of course, passion and dedication are an important part of how social movements make change, and most vegans and animal advocates have plenty of both. What lots of people don’t consider is the equally — if not more — important question of strategy. In order to be successful, major social movements take planning and strategy in addition to pure purpose and drive. So, if we’re focusing on changing people’s minds about eating meat, what’s the most effective way to do it?

In a study published in August of 2018, researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Free University Amsterdam) set out to determine which messages are most effective at changing people’s attitudes about eating meat. To do this, they had 439 participants read persuasive essays or watch slideshows and then answer questions about their feelings about meat. The essays and slideshows each focused on one type of argument: moral, health, or disgust.

The moral and health arguments are likely quite familiar to anyone with any knowledge of this topic, as they’re both heavily utilized by proponents of vegetarianism and veganism. In the moral arguments, the focus was on the relationship between meat consumption and either environmental degradation or animal suffering. Put simply, this argument says that people have a moral responsibility to give up meat because the meat industry harms the environment, or because it harms animals.

In the health-based arguments, the focus was instead on the health benefits of giving up meat, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. Even though both of these compelling arguments are used frequently in vegan outreach, the unfortunate truth is that in previous research, they’ve been shown to only have a small effect on people’s overall attitudes towards meat, and only when delivered in very specific ways.

The third form of argument is one we see far less often: one that hinges on disgust. In the wake of disgusting meat-PR moments, such as the publicity around mechanically separated meat called “pink slime” in the United States, meat sales go down, and the researchers in this study felt that was a promising trend. In fact, we already know that food aversions based in disgust can be very persistent, and arise out of evolutionary adaptations in the brain that cause us to avoid food that may make us sick. It’s a fairly common experience to be unable to eat a certain food again after getting food poisoning from it, with the aversion lasting sometimes for years or even permanently. Since this trait is hard-wired into our brains and can be extremely effective at making us avoid certain foods, might we be able to use disgust to convince people to give up meat?

According to the results of this study, the answer to this question may be yes. The findings indicated that both animal welfare and disgust messages reduced the participants’ desire to eat meat more than messages focusing on health or environmental degradation. The disgust-based messages also increased people’s interest in eating vegetables. So, if we’re interested in using the techniques that inspire the most change when we talk to meat-eaters about meat, the answer seems clear: gross them out, and make them feel moral responsibility towards animals.

It can’t hurt to also throw in information about the significant effect the meat industry has on climate change or pollution, or the fact that giving up meat can make you less likely to get type 2 diabetes or gastric cancer. These additional benefits are icing on the cake, and it’s worth sharing this information too, especially to someone who’s already open to considering reducing their meat intake. But if you’re designing major anti-meat campaigns, for instance, or deciding on the initial hook of a video or pamphlet meant to convince people to give up meat, this study provides solid, evidence-based guidance.

Read the full text of the study here.

Featured image: disgust over food is a powerful motivator. Image credit Andrew Seaman, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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About Author

Dylan has been joyously aware of the multispecies nature of the world around him since childhood, and today considers this attention towards nonhuman others to be an integral component of his intellectual, political, and emotional life. Dylan had the pleasure of being a part of the Animal People team from 2015-2021. Click to see author's profile.

1 Comment

  1. Ironically, the ethical argument often goes hand in hand with the “public disgust” argument. I do a lot of street outreach, and when people watch slaughterhouse footage, it’s so easy to show that these products are nothing but the bloody flesh of a living being that was once attached to their bodies. It’s crazy how conditioned we’ve become to deny that fact, but once you see it, it’s really difficult to go back.

    Great article, let’s push this hard <3

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