Embrace the Cognitive Dissonance

A friend once took issue with my “Love animals, don’t eat them” shirt, stating without a hint of self-awareness that “eating is different than loving.” Yes, those things are quite different was my immediate thought, though the circumstances prevented me from replying.

Most non-vegans, despite what they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, describe themselves as “animal lovers.” As vegans, this can be frustrating: How can someone claim to love something, yet pay for other people to kill it so that they can eat its body parts?

I’ve compared this to being a vocal proponent of peace meanwhile donating to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. That is, professing to believe one thing despite actions suggesting otherwise. What might a person say when confronted with this hypocrisy? Their justifications might parallel those of meat-eating “animal lovers” who are asked about their diet. Of course, most people don’t grow up in cultures that regularly donate to terrorist organizations, but most people do grow up eating meat and animal products, so it’s not exactly the same.

You don’t need me to point out the hypocrisy of professing a love for animals while eating them. Sometimes, people really mean they love cats, dogs, and other fuzzy animals that are not cows, pigs, chickens and fish. In that case, they’re just not being specific enough when they say they love animals, and pressing them on it is just pedantic.

But that’s rarely what people mean when they say they love animals. They mean they love animals, no exceptions (besides spiders and snakes, perhaps). This is the source of discomfort when their supposed love for animals is challenged — for example, when reminded that they eat them unnecessarily.

We should exploit embrace this discomfort because it’s what leads to change. Think back to before you were vegan, if ever there was a time. Did you experience unshakeable cognitive dissonance when your proclaimed love for animals was brought into question in the context of your diet? Was that not what kept nagging at you until you decided to bring your behavior in line with your ethics? I know that’s a large part of why I went vegan.

The people who never experience this disconnect between their actions and their morals are unlikely to go vegan. But even those that do experience this are unlikely to drop meat and animal products without hesitation. They may rationalize their non-veganism, appealing to a set of poor arguments against veganism, as a means of staving off the dissonance. If you’re like me, this described you at some point in the past. And if you’re like me, the dissonance persisted once the poor arguments were exposed as such, and there was nothing left to do except go vegan.

All of this is to say that it is far, far more preferable to have people fail to act on their discomfort than for there to not be any discomfort whatsoever. Someone who has no qualms about the inconsistency between loving animals and eating them is never going to go vegan.

Sure, many people fail to drop animal products at the first sniff of cognitive dissonance. But it’s our job to eviscerate the pseudo-arguments that reduce this dissonance so that people remain in the uncomfortable state of knowingly engaging in behaviors they find unethical.

Some people make these changes quickly in response to the discomfort; others will take longer. Be patient and embrace the cognitive dissonance. It’s what fuels change.


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