• Animal meat consumption has been a part of human behaviour for thousands of years, and may be the result of underlying cognitions or beliefs that support and justify consuming animal flesh.
  • ‘Carnist beliefs’ can be categorised into two separate categories; beliefs that justify eating animal flesh based on it being ‘natural and necessary’ (for nutrition/health etc), and beliefs that justify eating animal flesh based on human dominance.
  • The results suggest that there is a correlation between ‘carnistic domination’ beliefs, ‘right-wing’ ideology, sexism, racism and lesser empathy.

Take Home Message

This study suggests that people who consume animal flesh can be grouped into two categories based on their beliefs; these are ‘carnistic defence’ and ‘carnistic domination’. Understanding carnistic ideology through these categorisations could help develop better strategies for shifting such beliefs.

Paper's Stats

Animal Status

No animals were harmed for this research.

Animal flesh consumption has been a part of human behaviour for thousands of years, and is seen by many to be natural, necessary for health, integral to human evolution and even a cultural norm.

At present, as the authors of this paper state, “meat is consumed in vast quantities, and the processes through which billions of animals are turned into food are associated with widespread ethical concerns as well as environmental and health consequences”. However, despite the fact that meat consumption has been associated with inhumane practices, widespread negative environmental impact and increased risk of various chronic health conditions such as heart disease and cancer, most individuals still consume animal products.

The authors of this paper wanted to examine the reasons behind this, and suggest that there are various beliefs and cognitions underlying and contributing to the behaviour of meat consumption. The ideology behind meat-eating, they argue, goes beyond mere taste.

Based on previous literature and research, the authors of this paper argue that there are two main ideologies (or ‘carnist beliefs’) that contribute to meat consumption. Firstly, there is the belief that meat is ‘normal, natural and necessary’, or what the authors call ‘carnistic defence’. For people who ascribe to this belief, meat-eating is part of the status quo, and is required for human survival. Any argument or evidence presented relating to the negative consequences of eating meat may therefore create cognitive dissonance for these individuals, as there may be a tension between acknowledging these negative impacts – which challenges the status quo – and the conflicting belief that meat-consumption is still normal and necessary. One way of relieving this tension is for meat-eaters to deny or downplay animals’ cognitive capacities, “reducing the moral concern for them in order to justify the act of eating them”.

The second category that the authors identify is what they called ‘carnistic domination’. This refers to the belief that humans are deservedly at the top of the food chain and therefore our behaviour towards certain animals is justified. The authors state that “carnistic domination beliefs justify the domination, subjugation, and killing of animals for food; therefore, these beliefs support the hierarchy between animals and humans”. Carnistic domination may also be related to hunting and other behaviours which justify utilising animals in the name of entertainment or sport.

The authors aimed to empirically investigate these beliefs by developing a brief self-report measure of carnism, which they called the Carnism Inventory.

Study One

How did they do it?

The authors drafted a number of items (i.e. questions) to be used in the Carnism Inventory, relating to both carnistic defence and carnistic domination. Carnistic defense items related to the naturalness (“Humans should continue to eat meat because they’ve been doing it for thousands of years”), normality (I’ve been eating meat my whole life, I could never give up”), dietary necessity of meat (“Eating meat is better for my health”), and the denial of animal suffering (“The production of meat causes animals to suffer”). Carnistic domination items focused on the derogation of animals (“Animals aren’t intelligent enough to suffer in intensive confinement”), negative stereotypes about animals (“Animals are dirty and deserve to be eaten”), dominance (“Eating animals builds character”), and support for the killing of animals (“I have the right to kill any animal I want”).

In the end the authors included a total of 12 items in the final Inventory. This 12-item inventory was then tested for reliability using various statistical techniques. 302 American undergraduate students took part and indicated their agreement with each item on a scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

What did they find?

In a nutshell, they found that the CI was a reliable measure of carnist beliefs, and that carnist defence and carnist domination were two distinct but related dimensions of the underlying construct of carnism.

Study Two

How did they do it?

The authors then examined the validity (convergent, discriminant and criterion validity) of the Carnisn Inventory, by investigating its relationship with, and independence from, other constructs (i.e. personality traits). They used multiple samples of participants in order to investigate this; see the paper if you would like more details on this.

What did they find?

In a nutshell, they found that the Carnism Inventory represented a distinct construct (and hence was a valid measure of carnist beliefs); it was highly correlated with an Attitude toward Animals Scale (AAS), but was found to be a psychometrically distinct construct from this (again, this just means it’s valid). They also found that meat-eating behavior was related to ideological values, namely carnism; in other words, carnistic beliefs facilitate carnistic behaviors.

Study Three

After ensuring that the measure they had developed – the CI – was both reliable and valid, the authors investigated the relationship between carnistic beliefs (as measured by the CI), prejudice, ideological human-human attitudes, and other social and political attitudes.

How did they do it?

Again, the authors used multiple participant samples (see the paper for further details). Participants were first asked to indicate their political orientation on a 1 to 5 scale, ranging from strongly liberal to strongly conservative. Right-wing ideologies and prejudicial human-human relations were then measured with seven different scales (see the paper for further details on these scales). One of these scales measured Social Dominance Orientation, which relates to one’s preference for intergroup social hierarchies. Vegetarianism threat was assessed with a seven-item scale (such as “the rise of vegetarianism poses a threat to our country’s cultural customs”). Xenophobic, sexist and racist beliefs were also measured using various scales.

Finally, the authors administered their own scale, the Carnism Inventory.

What did they find?

The authors found that carnistic beliefs – both carnistic defence and domination – were associated with right-wing ideologies as well as prejudicial attitudes. Unlike those high in only carnistic defence, those who were high in carnistic domination scored higher on measures of hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, and symbolic racism. Carnistic defence was correlated with political conservatism while carnistic domination was not. Both scales were related to the belief that vegetarianism poses a credible threat to U.S. social norms and political stability.

The authors also found that carnistic beliefs mediated the relationship between Social Dominace Orientation and meat consumption; in other words, individuals who scored high on social dominance (i.e. holding beliefs supporting social hierarchies), in combination with scoring high on carnistic beliefs (in particular, carnistic domination), consumed more meat and were more likely to have personally slaughtered an animal for its meat. They also found that people who were high in carnistic domination ate meat more frequently independent of how much they enjoyed it; therefore, for these individuals, the act of eating animals may be motivated by their ideology over and above taste.

What does it mean?

People might say that they can’t give up meat because of the taste – we’ve all heard the ‘mmm bacon’ argument before. But, as these results show, meat-eating seems to be more than just an issue of taste: it’s a deeply-entrenched ideological position.

The apparent correlation between carnistic domination and various ideologies such as sexism and racism is fairly shocking to me, and deserves more exploration in future research. In addition, these are important findings when considering vegan activism and outreach. It may be the case that those who justify eating meat based on nutrition or arguments such as ‘it’s just what we’ve always done’ (i.e. carnistic defence), are easier to reach and more open to change then those who believe that meat-eating and other form of animal exploitation are justified based on human dominance or superiority (i.e. carnistic domination). Information about veganism may be able to be tailored to individuals based on the ideologies behind their meat consumption, in order to maximise the effectiveness of the information and the possibility of behaviour change.

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I’m a post-graduate student, tutor and avid lover of coffee, 90s music and scary movies. My background and training is in psychology and law, but I am interested in most areas of research, social justice, and, of course, veganism and animal rights.

Title: The Carnism Inventory: Measuring the Ideology of Eating Animals

Authors: Christopher A. Monteiro, Tamara M. Pfeiler, Marcus D. Patterson, Michael A. Milburn

Journal: Appetite

Date Published: February 3rd, 2017


Discussed on Podcast: VeganSci Podcast Ep4

Paper Access

Behind paywall

Research Type

Peer-reviewed research