Vegetarians and vegans are seen as less socially attractive by the meat-eating majority in part because they are viewed as moralistic, according to a new study published in the journal Appetite. The findings provide new insight into the relationship between dietary choices and social attraction, or the willingness to affiliate oneself with particular social groups.
“The high consumption of animal products (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs) in Western countries may be considered one of the most pressing moral problems of our time, because it is entails the exploitation and suffering of billions of sentient animals in factory farms, because it compromises environmental sustainability and because it negatively affects our own health,” explained lead researcher Ben De Groeve, who recently obtained a PhD in communication science from Ghent University.
“Despite strong arguments favoring a shift toward plant-based diets, there is only a minority of people who choose to abstain from meat (vegetarians) or other animal products (vegans), raising the question why shifts toward plant-based diets are often resisted by the meat-eating or ‘omnivorous’ majority.”
“One of the barriers could be social: People often do not like to deviate from social norms, even if there are good moral reasons to do so, and minorities are often seen as less socially attractive. I therefore decided to examine the role of negative stereotypes in predicting the social attractiveness of vegetarians and vegans,” De Groeve said.
For their study, the researchers randomly assigned 412 omnivorous adults from the United Kingdom to answer questions about either omnivores, flexitarians, vegetarians or vegans. The participants also completed a free association task, in which they wrote down the first three traits that came to mind when thinking of the dietary group in question.
The participants viewed omnivores as the most socially attractive group, followed by vegetarians. In other words, the participants were very willing to be associated with omnivores and slightly less willing to be associated with vegetarians. They were slightly unwilling, however, to be associated with vegans.
Vegetarians, and especially vegans, were seen as more moral but also more eccentric and moralistic (self-righteous and narrow-minded) than omnivores, which in turn predicted lower social attractiveness. Vegetarians and vegans were often described as “eco-friendly” and “considerate” during the free association task, but they were also described as “judgmental” and “preachy.”
“Vegetarians and vegans may evoke both positive and negative impressions. Both groups may be viewed positively for their (perceived) moral commitment and their dietary motivations related to animal welfare, the environment, and health, and this may increase their social attractiveness relative to omnivores,” De Groeve told PsyPost.
“At the same time, vegetarians and vegans are generally seen as less socially attractive because they are seen as less normal, less sociable, but especially because of moralistic stereotypes. Especially vegans may be perceived as less attractive because they are associated with a self-righteous commitment to attain goals. I would encourage people, irrespective of their dietary pattern, to consider each other’s perspective.”
Flexitarians, who try to reduce their meat consumption but do not totally abstain from it, were seen as less socially attractive than omnivores but more socially attractive than vegetarians.
“We found that flexitarians are viewed as moral, health-conscious and eco-friendly (like vegetarians and vegans) and as less moralistic and more socially attractive (like omnivores), but also as lacking commitment. This raises an interesting dilemma between moral commitment and social flexibility, or idealism and pragmatism. Those who are more morally committed to maintaining a certain diet may risk being/appearing more moralistic, while those who are more socially flexible may risk being/appearing morally uncommitted,” De Groeve explained.
“Both idealistic and pragmatic approaches to promote (more) plant-based diets may have benefits and downsides. In a follow-up study, I developed a framework to explain character judgments of vegan advocates and I discuss idealistic and pragmatic approaches to change.”
The new findings shed light on how omnivores perceive other dietary groups. But it is unclear whether these stereotypical impressions are an accurate reflection of reality.
“An interesting question for future research is to examine the accuracy of stereotypes associated with vegetarians and vegans, in particular with regard to moralistic impressions. People may have had negative experiences with moralistic vegans, though people might also merely imagine being moralistically judged by vegans,” De Groeve said.
“A lot of evidence also shows that many people typically want to avoid harming animals, despite engaging in dietary habits that harm animals (this has been called the meat paradox in psychological literature). To maintain the illusion that eating animals or their products is both (relatively) harmless and unavoidable, people might engage in motivated reasoning to defend their diet. Moralistic stereotypes may serve as a stigma to silence morally-motivated vegetarians and vegans whose mere existence challenges this illusion.”
“Of course, this is not to say that adopting vegetarian or vegan diets is feasible for everyone or that these diets are morally flawless,” De Groeve added. “Besides social barriers, practical and structural barriers are also important to consider in realizing shifts toward more plant-based diets. It would also be interesting to look at how vegetarians and vegans view omnivores and find ways to circumvent us-versus-them thinking and improve cooperation.”
The research was funded by Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO).
The study, “Moral rebels and dietary deviants: How moral minority stereotypes predict the social attractiveness of veg*ns“, was authored by Ben De Groeve, Liselot Hudders, and Brent Bleys.