Do vegetarians feel more disgust?

Aug 29 2012 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Sci used to be a vegetarian. I decided on being a vegetarian the summer after high school, on a trip across the United States, while studying environmental and land use issues. I guess it's not too surprising that some of the things I found led me to give up meat. And give it up I did, for several years. Unfortunately, I was a really bad vegetarian. Not in terms of eating meat, I was very good at not eating meat. What I was BAD at was eating everything else. Without meat my diet basically extended to bread, cheese, and...other ingredients common to cheese pizza and pasta covered in...cheese. When I started to suffer issues associated with malnutrition (especially anemia), my doctor and family demanded a more balanced diet. Now the Sci-house eats poultry roughly twice a week (except Scicat, obligate carnivores gotta eat). But I have also become a MUCH better eater in general. I now eat piles of dark leafy greens, fruit, and vegetables. Whole grains abound.

But I noticed something during my years as a vegetarian. Meat just didn't interest me. Most of the time, it still doesn't. I tend to look for, and cook, vegetarian recipes because they just appeal to me more. But for many moral vegetarians (people who become vegetarians because of moral reasons), it goes beyond indifference to meat, and all the way to disgust. Meat has become something disgusting, something that is the result of processes that they find distasteful and wrong.

And some scientists wondered...is it just meat? Or are people who are vegetarians for moral reasons more likely to feel disgust in general?


(Obligatory photo of our adorable obligate carnivore. Could anyone refuse that face?!)

Fessler et al. "Disgust sensitivity and meat consumption: a test of an emotivist account of moral vegetarianism" Appetite, 2003.

The idea that the authors of this paper are testing is one of "emotivist" reasoning. This basically suggests that your reasoning arises because of previous emotional processes...in other words that you rationalize after your gut's already told you something. In this view, you would become a moral vegetarian because, at heart, you are more likely to find meat disgusting, and you rationalize it after the fact. This is only one view of moral reasoning, but it is the one that this paper was looking at specifically.

There is some data that supports this view. For example, moral vegetarians find meat more disgusting than people who are vegetarians for health reasons. There are theories that if you have a moral injunction against eating meat, you create a link to strong emotions that promote disgust (say, images of slaughterhouses). And many moral vegetarians become vegetarian because they have been exposed to powerful emotional experiences, which would mean that the disgust preceded the conscious decision to become a vegetarian. The question then is whether moral vegetarians are just more likely to be disgusted in general, and then to make decisions like vegetarianism based on that.

I'm not so sure about this concept. Yes, the disgust would precede the decision to become a moral vegetarian, but this does not mean that you were ALWAYS more disgusted by mean. Probably you weren't before the powerful emotional experience.

Another bit of circumstantial support is that women are more likely to become vegetarians than men. Women also display more disgust toward meat and toward things in general than men do. That's a correlation, sure, but it's not causation.

Finally, disgust does tend to carry over. People who show a lot of disgust in one domain (say, guts spilling out everywhere a la the end of Braveheart), also show more disgust in other similar domains, like seeing someone stick a fishhook through their finger. So the hypothesis here is that moral vegetarians will show more disgust in response to meat, and that this will carry over into other similar domains like blood and guts, showing that moral vegetarians show more sensitive disgust responses overall.

So the authors here conducted a web survey looking at measures of disgust, and comparing it with the amount of meat eaten on a regular basis. They got 1340 responses to a web survey, in which they asked about how often you ate meat, how often told others not to, and took measures of disgust by asking for responses to pictures of things like roaches, bodily fluids, combinations of mayonnaise with something that DOES NOT go with mayo (like...ice cream?), etc (I'll just let you picture those for yourself, but you can look at the test here). In order to make sure that people did not guess the point of the study, they conducted the survey to look more like a nutritional survey than one looking at moral responses.

What did they find? Women tended to consume less meat than men (this was carried by red meat consumption). Women were also more disgust sensitive, which replicates previous studies. Disgust measures in general declined with age (at some point, you've seen it all).

When they separated out people who didn't eat meat exclusively due to moral concerns, they were left with only 80 people (I'm rather interested that they didn't get more than that with such a large sample). But did this sample show more disgust sensitivity?

Nope. There was no correlation between moral vegetarianism and disgust sensitivity. In fact, there was a small positive correlation between white meat consumption and disgust sensitivity. But moral vegetarians had no increase in disgust sensitivity compared to the general population.

While this study has some interesting findings, I'm not really sure it got at the question it was meaning to answer. The online survey didn't have people DECLARE themselves vegetarian or not, instead it qualified people who didn't eat any three of the meats listed, and then asked why, and made you pick moral or health. This is probably why they had such a small moral vegetarian population (most vegetarians have more than one reasons). I realize that they did a lot of this to make sure that people didn't understand the point of the study, but I don't think it really made for clear findings. In fact, I'm not sure a web survey is at all the best way to approach this. If it were my study, I'd deliberately recruit omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans (with maybe a screen on environmentalism related issues). I'd have them come in and take a survey on disgust, not on their eating habits at all. I might also take physical measures of disgust while they were exposed to disgusting things (for example, the faces associated with disgust are universal, or you could look at fMRI measures of the insula). I think you might then get a clearer picture of whether or not people who are vegetarians or vegans are more easily disgusted in general. I also don't know that distinguishing by moral or health is generally the best principle. Dieters, for example, can show higher disgust responses, and this might extend to health related vegetarianism.

However, I also think that the general finding here, that moral vegetarians are not more easily disgusted by...stuff...is probably the right one. Disgust at one TYPE of thing does not necessarily carry over to another, particularly when disgust for the original item is something that is morally derived and not something that the vast majority of humans are disgusted by (say, meat as compared to feces or vomit). The idea that it would carry over to blood and guts is a good one, though. I wonder if the authors would have seen an effect if they'd deliberately selected out the blood and guts domain of the disgust scale, and I wonder why they didn't.

But appears that this study does not support feelings of general disgust underlying moral vegetarianism. Instead, the authors hypothesize that disgust is a consequence of your moral decision making. Mind over gut, at least when it comes to meat.

Fessler DM, Arguello AP, Mekdara JM, & Macias R (2003). Disgust sensitivity and meat consumption: a test of an emotivist account of moral vegetarianism. Appetite, 41 (1), 31-41 PMID: 12880619

19 responses so far

  • Isabel says:

    "Even if I was hungry, I would not drink a bowl of my favorite soup if it had been
    stirred by a used but thoroughly washed flyswatter. "

    LOL. I was surprised to score below average (15), as I consider myself pretty squeamish. Maybe I have, as you suggest, toughened up as the years have gone by.

  • [...] here:  Do vegetarians feel more disgust? | Neurotic Physiology Category: Vegetarianism | Tags: browser, browser-privacy, could-not, fix-this, invalid-request, [...]

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I'm pretty much of a carnivore. Because of gout, I have reduced my intake of red meat. I don't miss it much. I eat an occasional hamburger or steak, but don't really look forward to doing so. I have also given up asparagus for the same reason.

  • Just wanted to say that your obligate carnivore is adorable.

  • James Joseph Ferguson says:

    Thank you for your article. It was a good read.

    However, I believe you do make some mistakes in understanding vegetarians and their ambition to remain vegetarians. A good book to clarify any of your misunderstanding about the moral dilemma vegetarians have concerning the welfare of animals is "Animal Liberation" by Peter Singer, a utilitarian advocate for the welfare of animals in general--including non-human animals, of course. The moral dilemma vegetarians with eating non-human animals, with feeling justified in not eating non-human animals is that we extend the principle of equal considerations of interests (a moral principle that states that one should both include all affected interests, including non-human animals, when calculating the rightness of an action and weigh those interests equally). So, deciding to eat a pig after its slaughtered is morally tantamount to deciding to eat a mentally retarded human with the same degree of intelligence as the pig. In other words, if we chose to eat the pig instead of the similarly intelligence mentally retarded human, then we are engaging with a type of discrimination called speciesism and effectively exhibiting an illogical and actually quite morally indefensible position. The moral disgust feeling vegetarians have towards eating non-human animals is a result of the philosophical and utilitarian ideas that inform them, whether these ideas be self-taught or learned in environments higher education confers their minds. Therefore, the authors employed in this article are right to "hypothesize that disgust is a consequence of your moral decision making." Good read! Reply for a debate if you'd like.

  • Bonnie Nordby says:

    After my surgical rotation in nursing school I gave up eating any meat for about two years. Not exactly disgust but I kept having thoughts of chewing on a human arm etc... everytime I thought about eating meat. Having these thoughts didn't frighten or freak me out, I just kind of observed them with interest. I guess I really got that we humans are meat too.

  • Curious says:

    Your cat is really cute.

  • Hubert Barge says:

    I have known a number of Vegetarians in Hepatitis-C support groups. It seems that Vegetarianism along with bicycle riding and alcohol avoidance has provided one of the best ways of slowing the progress of the disease. People can have all sorts of reasons for vegetarianism.

  • [...] rest is here: Do vegetarians feel more disgust? | Neurotic Physiology ← Indian Restaurants – a Refreshing Change to the Taste Buds – [...]

  • [...] Interesting post over at Scientopia’s Neurotic Physiology dissecting a nine-year-old study in the journal Appetite testing the hypothesis that “moral” vegetarians became so because they feel disgust more easily than other people — in other words, that gut feelings preceded our eating philosophy, which is a rationalization of those underlying feelings. Not true, concluded the researchers after surveying 1,340 people online. (They did find a slight correlation between people who are more easily disgusted and white meat consumption…tres interesting.) Left unsolved is why at least some longer-term vegetarians tend to find meat more disgusting than they did when they first made the switch, or how some overcome that disgust to go back. Thoughts? [...]

  • Bucky says:

    The real question is why vegetarians believe that vegetables are less deserving of life than animals, and perpetrate their oral sadism upon the helpless, immobile things.

  • [...] ghê tởm và khoan dung xã hội nói chung, liệu người ăn chay cảm thấy ghê tởm thịt hơn người [...]

  • Chorabora says:

    This is kinda old, but I decided to throw in my two cents anyway. I am a vegetarian and have been since age 12. I made the decision on my own after seeing countless trucks on the highway full of cows and pigs on the way to slaughter. So much needless suffering of sentient beings all for feeding the fat guts of the ignorant or insensitive meat-eating masses. Creatures that have been filled with growth hormones to make them fatter faster, destined to die in a pool of their own blood and feces. These animals do NOT want to die, just like you or I. Not to mention, the rasing of livestock is HELL on our already over-stressed planet. Anyway, I was a chubby kid, going vegetarian cleared that up in about a year. Now, at age 21 I am a fitness and swimsuit model. When people ask me how I look so good I tell them, it's simple: choose a meat-free, wheat-free diet and get physical activity and your body will thank you by letting you look radiant and healthy - and I have every confidence that I will age gracefully without the hoarde of health problems that affect the obese, meat-eating, processed food loving people of today. I simply can not watch people eat the stuff. Brings to mind images of slaughter and the insides of their sick intensines being coated in animal grease and blood. I also cannot date non vegetarians for the same reason. People who eat meat even smell disgusting to me.

  • James says:

    This is an interesting item. I think maybe the people who devised the questionnaire could expand the question to find out whether vegetarians might be more considerate people than meat eaters, more thoughtful or maybe even more intelligent than many meat eaters. Vegetarians obviously think deeply and consider the consequences of their actions with a strong ethical and moral stance.
    There could also be a questionnaire for abattoir workers and butchers to see whether they possess any psychopathic tendencies and to see how close they are to being able to murder a human.

  • Lynda says:

    That was interesting, and quite amusing! (My obligate carnivores think your obligate carnivore is “meeee-OW!”)

    I used to prepare meat without a thought, but was brainwashed by the HSUS and became a vegetarian at 15. As I grew fatter, sicker, weaker, balder and spottier, I also became more and more squeamish. I could not bear to touch meat - or anything that had touched meat and not been properly sterilized. I had to have separate cookware and rarely ate out. The sight of carcasses in butcher windows made me feel ill and distressed. After 4 decades I had to return meat to my diet, and I feel healthier now than I did 30 years ago. I once again handle raw meat with no trace of disgust.

    Vegetarianism is the edge of an eating disorder: veganism is the full expression. It is a cycle of disgust, fear, and obsessive self-control, rationalised by emotion and exploited by animal rights groups.

  • James says:

    Lynda, your diet must have been very poor for you to become fat, spotty and sick, but I don't think you can blame being a vegetarian for it. You were obviously not told about healthy foods and probably lived on chocolate and cheese instead. I would say that the majority of people who match your description are meat eaters with their big Mac whoppers with fries and a gallon of coke etc.
    It sounds as if your mind became slightly unbalanced too, but there are millions of vegetarians around the world either by ethical choice or for religious purposes who live perfectly healthy well balanced lives.
    I won't venture into the "brainwashing" comment, but stones and glasshouses leap to mind. To see a carcass in a shop window and say "hmm" while licking your lips is not a thing to be proud of. Good for you that you used to have a moral stance until you dropped them for convenience purposes, though again, nothing to be proud of.

  • maria de lourdes says:

    "What did they find? Women tended to consume less meat than men (this was carried by red meat consumption). Women were also more disgust sensitive, which replicates previous studies. Disgust measures in general declined with age (at some point, you've seen it all)."

    We are talking USA,right? So add "american women".I am getting tired of this ethnocentric science.Besides,it is also an american idea that eat meat is destroying the planet.We can find around the world many cultures that eat meat and respect nature.

  • Ashly Urness says:

    me encanto la entrada... gracias por tips los voy a tener muy presentes.Me gustaTe gusta esto

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