The topic that I found most interesting about the self this week was cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that people feel when two beliefs, attitudes conflict or when they are inconsistent with their conception of themselves. Dissonance is especially most disruptive when one of these dissonant cognitions challenges our sense of self-worth. Now it is no surprise that a central part of human behavior is our need to preserve a stable and positive self-image, a high self-esteem. So I wanted to ponder one of the most significant parts of our lives: our dietary choices. Some people might not consider what you eat to be such a crucial part of your life, but there are a lot of things to connect with what you choose to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Food is a staple in everyone’s everyday lives, and can even hold larger significance if you’re a foodie, or if food is a social experience for you, or if food is really important to your culture or ethnic group—the list goes on. For me, although I loved rice and meat and food in general growing up, I never really thought about how serious people take food—until I changed my attitude and behavior toward food so that it no longer fit the norm of a typical person’s diet, let alone a Chinese American’s diet. Apparently, food, in my experience, is central for people to maintain their self-image.
I really think the theory of cognitive dissonance does a great job of describing why people often get so defensive around people choose not to eat meat or other animal products. Now of course, my intention in this blog post is not at all to generalize all people and say anyone who is not vegan acts in the way I’m describing. I’m just talking from my experiences both from being an omnivore my whole life to being vegan the past few years. In this situation, I think there are two different main cognitions—”I love animals” and “I love meat.” People are usually quite good with having these inconsistent and contradictory beliefs and attitudes and not really confronting the hypocrisy.
When someone is asked to confront the hypocrisy of saying you love animals when consuming animals on a daily basis, there are pretty much two options: you continue to eat animals or you stop eating animals. I would argue that confronting your daily habits and a behavior you grew up with your whole life is certainly jarring and a great cause of cognitive dissonance. And I think people who face this situation subconsciously or consciously adopt one or more of three basic dissonance-reducing behaviors. The first would be changing our behavior to bring it in line with the dissonant cognition. So for me, my dissonant cognition is that eating meat and any other animal products is unnecessarily cruel, unhealthy, and extremely harmful to the environment. I choose to change my behavior and go vegan by refraining from consuming and using any animal products. The second way would be attempting to justify our behavior through changing one of the dissonant cognitions. So this could be changing your beliefs on what you know to be fact (that red meat is actually a known carcinogen; that the meat and dairy industries, aside from killing countless animals for the sake of human enjoyment, also treat animals with severe cruelty; that our earth is hurting because of human actions, and consuming meat and dairy are very harmful to the environment when compared to a plant-based diet) to justify your actions: “This steak isn’t that bad for me,” or “Pigs and chickens and cows are totally different from dogs and cats,” or “I bet people exaggerate the effects of our food choices on the environment. Also, climate change isn’t real.” And the third would be attempting to justify our behavior by adding new cognitions, so that could be “Cutting meat out of my life would be greatly inconvenient on my lifestyle,” or “I know it’s bad for you, but I could never cut cheese out of my life—it’s too good, life is too short.”
Another topic discussed in the textbook was dissonance across cultures. Although I am American, which would suggest an individualistic mindset, I am also Chinese, raised by Chinese immigrant parents. In a study detailed in our textbook, students with a similar background to me still had collectivist tendencies; and if I had to guess, I would as well. From this chapter, I learned that in “collectivist” societies, you are more likely to find dissonance-reducing behavior aimed at maintaining group harmony and less likely to see people justifying their own personal behavior. People with a more collectivistic mindset experience will experience dissonance when their behavior shames or disappoints others. And I do notice that, when discussing my lifestyle choices with other people, more often than not that those of Chinese, other Asian, and Hispanic backgrounds tell me: “Oh, I could never. Ya know, [insert ethnic group] family.” And I say, yes, I completely understand. In my experience, food is a huge part of Chinese culture, to families. There are many little connections one would never think about, such as how someone’s parents might be offended if their child stops eating meat because back then, before they immigrated to America and during their childhood, meat was a luxury; and now, you have the privilege and opportunity to eat meat—and you choose not to? So in this case, I can see dissonance-reducing behavior in the third way—justifying our behavior by adding new cognitions. Maybe people are aware that eating vegan would be healthier, or that it would be better for the environment, but completely changing your lifestyle in that way would cause a lot of tension in your family. Rather than changing your behavior to bring it in line with your dissonant cognition, you choose to add new cognitions, that cutting meat out of your life would greatly impact your connection with your family, and connection with your culture, and that is something you cannot compromise on.
Additionally, on the textbook’s discussion of dehumanizing the enemy to justify cruelty, I found interesting connections. Animals are obviously not human, but I don’t think that means aspects of this kind of dissonance-reducing behavior cannot apply to the typical person’s treatment and thoughts toward animals. A typical human puts animals on a different level than humans; whereas people who are vegan for ethical reasons extend their compassion and concern to not only humans but animals as well—to all living beings—an omnivore is inclined to continue behavior and attitudes that lessens the worth of animals in order to guarantee a continuation of their animal consumption.
I also thought it would be interesting to examine my lifestyle through the justification of effort. This is when someone works hard to attain some goal or object, and how they tend to increase their liking for this thing they have worked hard towards. Meaning that if I choose to go through a demanding or unpleasant experience to attain some goal, which many people I know would consider veganism as—demanding and unpleasant to cut out your favorite foods, to give away your favorite expensive leather jacket or suede shoes, to give up your favorite ethnic food that reminds you of your childhood—to attain the goal of living a cruelty-free, healthy, and environmentally sustainable lifestyle, then that goal becomes more attractive. So maybe all the effort that I have exerted to reduce my dissonance, I use to justify my choices and actions.
I also thought the irrevocability hypothesis discussing the permanence of decisions was interesting. This idea of irrevocability posits that the more permanent and irrevocable the decision, the stronger is the need to reduce dissonance. So maybe because I view my decision to go vegan as permanent, I feel a stronger need to justify my choice and change in behavior. To borrow the words of a different section in the textbook discussing the justification of our own immoral acts, this is “not merely a rationalization of your own behavior but a change in your systems of values.” But, a lot of people don’t view veganism as a permanent decision, for there are many people who try out vegetarianism or veganism from anywhere from a day to a few years and still go back to the more normal meat-eating, omnivorous ways of the vast majority of humans. My guess is the difference in the core reasons and motivations behind people’s choices—people like me who’s decision to live a vegan lifestyle goes straight down to core ethical beliefs versus people whose choices don’t hold roots in their self-image. Of course, all of this is just my speculation and attempt to analyze a real-life example through a social psychological lens.
On overcoming dissonance, the textbook says that if we learn to examine our behavior critically and dispassionately and to admit when we’re wrong, we stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action followed by self-justification followed by more committed action. And as a disclaimer, I am not judging anyone for the choices they make in their lives. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I don’t judge people for their actions and the beliefs they may hold. I believe that everyone deserves to discover his/her own perspectives and proudly choose his/her own lifestyle. Discussions with conflicting ideas don’t have to be militant and offensive; with the help of respectful and open minds, people have influenced me just as I have been able to influence them to reflect on their lives and reevaluate their beliefs on what is just and humane. At the same time, we can’t view the world and our actions in dichotomies; we must call forth the unique complexities of our inner thoughts, emotions, and morals. And I feel that a big part of that is examining our behavior and recognizing when two cognitions we have are actually contradictory and dissonant. For me, I feel a moral obligation to live compassionately for the well being of others and a global responsibility to protect the world and future generations from unjust harm. And the only way I was able to reach a point in my life where I could discover my core beliefs was admitting that with the knowledge that I now held, I had been causing unnecessary harm to animals, the world, and my own health for sixteen years of my life—knowing what I now know from social psychology, that process remarkably required a whole shifting and adjustment of my own self-image, all while maintaining my fragile self-esteem.