Herzog and Golden tried to find out what role disgust plays in making people animal activists or vegetarians. They hypothesized that it should play a major role based on Jonathan Haidt's model of moral psychology. On that model, people have immediate intuitions, colored by disgust and other emotions, and reason comes in as an afterthought. We rationalize what are really gut level reactions. So--is that true or false, in the case of people's concern for animals (or lack thereof)?
The authors gathered data from social networking sites like Facebook, dividing study participants into three groups--(1) self-described animal activists they found at animal rights sites, (2) promoters of animal use they found at pro-research sites (and the like), and (3) non-aligned people they found at sites chosen randomly.
Besides finding the answer to their question, they found out some interesting things. 42% of the animal activists were not vegetarians. The authors say this meshes the finding that 40% were meat-eaters at the 1990 March for Animals. (Vegetarians were defined as non-meat eaters; there was no separate category for vegans.)
On the other hand, 48% of the vegetarians were not animal activists. Many of them were vegetarians for environmental and health reasons, not for moral reasons.
As to emotion and reason: the researchers found that the animal activists scored higher on a general test for disgust sensitivity. They were generally more prone to "yuck" reactions. That makes a lot of sense to me. I do trace my initial interest in animal issues to seeing pictures and videos that elicited a strong disgust reaction.
However--big surprise--disgust sensitivity was not a predictor of vegetarianism. The authors used the Animal Attitude Scale to measure participants' beliefs about animals and ethics. Their scores did strongly predict whether they ate meat.
What does all this show? Well, a bunch of things. That beliefs do matter, so people who teach and write about animals are not wasting their time. That it's a mistake to draw lines between advocates and non-advocates based on who eats what. That alliances are crucial--environmental and other concerns can draw people toward animal-friendly behavior.
Most interesting, maybe, is that meat-eating is a hard behavior to change--people don't find it disgusting. In light of that, it seems completely wrong-headed to make abstinence the price of admission to the animal movement. I am reminded of a student I had in my Animal Rights class recently. Her family had built the downtown animal shelter. After I learned that, I met her father at a bookstore--we had both come to see PETA president Ingrid Newkirk give a talk. He wanted to chat about cattle ranching and hunting.
It's a funny world. We must not draw too many lines.