Dan Murphy: A Political Plants vs. Animals Debate

Does a person's political affiliation help gauge their tendency to be a vegetarian? Apparently is does. ( freeimages.com )

In an article in Psychology Today magazine titled, “Meat Eating and Political Ideology,” a Prof. Gordon Hodson posed a question that was intriguing, if awkwardly worded: Does your political view predict eating animals?

Obviously, the answer is yes — otherwise, why would anyone write about research concluding that highly divergent political ideology makes no difference as to the most personal of preferences: what we choose to eat?

They wouldn’t.

Hodson, an associate professor of psychology at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, had previously conducted studies showing that conservatives are more likely than liberals to return to eating meat when they try to eliminate it from their diet. As he wrote, “They lapse back to meat consumption.”

Whoa, stop right there.

“They lapse back?” As if eating meat is like abusing drugs? Someone “lapses back” into a balanced diet that includes animal foods?

I don’t think so.

According to Hodson, conservatives don’t have strong social support when they go veggie. Plus, they’re more likely to initiate a meatless diet due to health concerns, rather than for social reasons, such as animal welfare. As he stated, choosing to become vegetarian doesn’t generally occur because of some “differential meat craving by those on the left or right.”

We could have told him that before he even started his research.

The Disappearing Difference
Culinary preferences aside, there is a definite gap in the percentages of vegetarian adults, based on ideological differences. Although the latest Gallup poll on the subject estimated that 5% of Americans consider themselves vegetarian (not eating meat) with another 3% who consider themselves vegan (not eating meat, milk or eggs), a deeper dive is revealing.

There is a big divide in that data, according to Hodson’s analysis of the survey. He noted that among liberals, some 11% are vegetarian, versus only 2% of conservatives.

“This is a staggering difference,” he wrote, “with liberals 5.5 times more likely to be vegetarian compared to conservatives. A similar difference is observed for vegans: liberals are 2.5 times more likely to be vegan than are conservatives.”

Mathematically, that’s correct, although the liberal/conservative identification is the result of self-labeling by survey respondents, which can be very different from what people actually believe and not necessarily congruent with how they might vote in a given election.

Nevertheless, Hodson concluded that, “Political ideology is a very strong predictor of meat consumption.”

What Do We Make of Such Data?
Noting that people who have stronger social support when making lifestyle changes are more likely to stick with those behavioral changes is just common sense. We’re all social creatures, to one extent or another, and no matter what or how we resolve to make significant changes in our lives, it always works out better if we have friends and family to back us up.

Beyond that obvious takeaway, Hodson argued that the gap between numbers of conservative and liberal vegetarians may shrink going forward.

That’s primarily because overall interest in and inclusion of plant-based foods in place of meat and dairy products are on the upswing. That would mean more people in everybody’s social circles — left- or right-leaning — would be favorable toward and supportive of one’s decision to explore a vegetarian diet.

“With vegetarian and vegan diets becoming increasingly popular,” he concluded, “social support will become more salient and presumably weaken the left-right divide in ‘lapsing back’ to meat consumption.”

I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that observation, but I definitely disagree with the use of that inappropriate ‘l-word.”

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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