Vegetarians have problems in Germany

What do you call a fat vegetarian? Compost bin. And what does a vegetarian say who calls his family to the table? "Children, the food is wilting." Vegetarian jokes like these are springing up on the internet. And in the same discussions in which people who do not eat meat have to justify their decision, a saying like this usually comes up: "I don't like vegetarians, they eat my steak away from the food." But why do many people react to vegetarians as they do to members of a previously isolated tribe who are first admired and then ridiculed?

Julia Minson of the University of Pennsylvania and Benoît Monin of Stanford University offer an explanation (Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol. 3, p. 200, 2012). Meat eaters often feel that vegetarians condemn them morally and feel degraded to bad people. And people ward off attacks on their positive self-image by making attackers look ridiculous.

Vegetarians have long since lost their exotic status. In Germany today up to six million people forego meat and follow one of the different strict forms of vegetarianism. The majority decided to take this step for ethical reasons, write the nutritionists Claus Leitzmann and Markus Keller in their book "Vegetarian Nutrition". They reject the killing of animals or want to avoid the environment being polluted, for example, by greenhouse gases from animal husbandry.

This attitude qualifies vegetarians to the status of a minority, whose moral claim goes beyond that of the social majority, argue Minson and Monin. Therefore, vegetarians do not even have to peddle their decision in a pushy manner in order to trigger defense reactions in meat eaters. Even a dumb vegetarian is an implicit moral reproach to which people are highly sensitive.

This was shown in two studies by Minson and Monin. They asked their subjects - all people who eat meat - to write down all the terms that came to mind about vegetarians. Almost half of the participants named mainly negative terms such as "arrogant", "annoying" or "self-righteous". The psychologists then asked for their assessment of how vegetarians morally judge meat eaters. Those who had previously mentioned negative terms also felt more likely to be devalued by vegetarians because they ate meat. In their second attempt, the psychologists turned the tables. Now it was first about the image that vegetarians could have of meat-eaters and then asked for associations. In doing so, they virtually put the attack on the moral self into the space - and now the picture was even darker than before.

Conflicts from the meat paradox

Psychologists working with Brock Bastian also recently investigated why meat eaters could feel implicitly attacked (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, online). The researchers from the University of Queensland analyzed the inner justification by which people cope with the so-called meat paradox: Why do people enjoy meat and have affection for animals at the same time? Basically, animal and steak are separated in the presentation.

Bastian now showed that many people consider it justified to eat animals if their mental abilities are considered to be very poor. For example, pigs are known to be very clever animals. But, according to Bastian, meat eaters can suppress that and continue to feel like good people if they have a schnitzel on their plate - unless a vegetarian eats breaded celery next to them.

© SZ from 03.02.2012 / fran / beu