Are we born vegetarian? Children less likely to see farm animals as food

EXETER, United Kingdom — The morality of eating cheeseburgers, steaks, and everything in between is a controversial topic. Many abstain completely from meat in their diet out of empathy for animals, while others see nothing wrong with visiting a steak house on a Saturday night. Now, new research is accounting for age in the meat-morality debate. Scientists report children generally consider eating meat as less morally acceptable than adults.

Study authors add that these findings provide some clarity to the long-standing question of whether or not humans are naturally born with the mental processes that justify eating meat. This study suggests we are not. While this certainly isn’t the first study to investigate meat-eating tendencies in people, this latest project notes for the first time ever that this “meat-eating perspective” typically develops somewhere between 11-years-old and adulthood.

“Our findings suggest we need to consider how we talk to children about humans’ relationship with non-human animals,” says lead study author Luke McGuire of the University of Exeter in a media release. “Children are motivated to consider harm against the natural world, including animals, and as such we might want to consider beginning these discussions about food decisions early in life.”

Kids don’t rank animals in the food chain

A total of 479 people took part in this study, encompassing a variety of different age groups: children (9-11 years-old), young adults, (18-21), and adults (29-59). More specifically, the research focused on whether people measure an animal’s worth based on its species, and how they feel they should treat animals.

All in all, kids were much less likely to describe a “moral hierarchy” between humans and animals and also unlikely to describe farm animals as food. Also, in comparison to adults, adolescent participants conveyed that people should treat pigs much better in general.

Ethical reasons aren’t the only factors driving more people toward greener eating. More and more research continues to document the harmful effects of meat production on greenhouse gas emissions. Study authors say it’s important to understand what motivates humans to eat meat if we ever want to meaningfully cut down on meat-eating on a global scale.

“As with all social psychological processes, it is worth stepping back to consider where these attitudes and cognitions come from,” Dr. McGuire explains. “Critically examining our relationship with animals ought to be a primary goal of tackling climate change and one that begins in childhood.”

To be fair, study authors clarify that their work doesn’t suggest adults are cruel or uncaring toward all farm animals. This research simply finds children care more for farm animals than the average adult.

“As teenagers we start to have greater knowledge of the systems in place in the world, as well as autonomy over things like diet,” Dr. McGuire concludes, “It is fascinating to consider how these two elements might work together to lead to the adult thinking we see in our study.”

The study is published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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