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What Does Being a Vegetarian Say About You?

• September 19, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: PSNOONAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It largely depends upon where you live. Vegetarians in India and the West are both driven by ethical concerns, but the moral codes that drive their eating choices are very different.

Why does someone voluntarily refrain from eating meat? Newly published research suggests the likely answer will depend on whether you ask a vegetarian in Minneapolis or Mumbai.

It finds vegetarians in India and the West are both guided by deeply felt ethical considerations. But the moral codes that lead them to avoid meat are, in many ways, radically different.

“The psychological associations of vegetarianism are more nuanced than has been previously theorized,” a research team led by Matthew Ruby of the University of British Columbia writes in the journal Appetite. “Although Western and Indian vegetarians arrived at the same moralized behavior, their motivations are based on very different moral principles.”

Ruby and his team note that, in the West, vegetarianism has been linked with “broadly liberal worldviews.” But they wondered whether this would hold true in India, where a much larger percentage of the population avoids meat. (According to estimates, 20 to 42 percent of Indians are vegetarians, compared to three percent of Americans and eight percent of Canadians.)

It’s no surprise that vegetarianism in India is strongly linked with respect for authority and in-group loyalty.

They conducted two studies to examine the psychological underpinnings of vegetarianism. The first featured 272 people recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: 159 from Europe or North America, and 113 from India.

After indicating whether or not they were a vegetarian, participants filled out a series of surveys measuring their attitudes regarding environmental preservation; animal welfare (including whether animals belong in zoos or circuses); and right-wing authoritarianism (such as the importance they place on obedience and respect). They also answered questions designed to indicate what values they hold most highly.

Among Westerners, vegetarians (compared to meat-eaters) were “more concerned about the impact of their daily food choices on the environment and on animal welfare, more concerned with general animal welfare, more strongly endorsed values of universalism, and less strongly endorsed right-wing authoritarianism,” the researchers report.

However, among Indians who responded to those same questions, there were no significant differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The assumption that a vegetarian is more likely to have socially liberal attitudes holds true only in the West.

The second study featured 828 participants: 266 Americans; 106 Canadians; and two large groups of Indians, 256 recruited from Mechanical Turk, and 200 recruited from a small university. All responded to a series of statements measuring “the belief that eating meat pollutes one’s personality and spirit,” such as “Eating meat makes me behave like an animal.”

“Vegetarians more strongly endorsed the belief that eating meat pollutes one’s personality and spirit than did omnivores, and this difference was especially pronounced among Indians,” the researchers report. They note that in Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, “the aim of vegetarianism … is to keep the body free of the pollution associated with meat.”

They then took a survey based on the Moral Foundations theory of psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt, who conducted research in India, argues that people are driven by a set of basic moral principles, including care/harm, fairness, in-group loyalty, and purity/sanctity. He argues that our fundamental differences arise largely from which of these we emphasize, and which we de-emphasize.

On that front, the differences between Indians and Westerners were striking. Indian vegetarians were more likely than their meat-eating counterparts to endorse not only values related to purity, but also those supporting traditional authority and in-group loyalty. Conservative values, in other words.

This was not true among meat-avoiding Westerners. Indeed, American vegetarians actually placed less value in traditional authority than meat-eating Americans. Ruby and his colleagues suspect these differences reflect the cultures involved, and the place of vegetarianism within those cultures.

“Most vegetarians in the West were not raised as such, but made a decision at some point to convert from the meat-eating diet followed by the majority of people in their culture,” they note. It follows that they would be less concerned with authority, and more concerned with fairness.

In contrast, “vegetarianism has been firmly established in India for centuries, and is associated with tradition, power and status,” the researchers write. “Most Indian vegetarians are raised as such by their families.”

“Given the historical association of Indian vegetarianism with dominant social groups,” they add, it’s no surprise that vegetarianism in that country is strongly linked with respect for authority and in-group loyalty.

The findings are a reminder that “a similarity in behavior across cultures” does not necessarily reflect a similarity in thinking. In avoiding meat, diners from Calcutta to California are making a statement about their values. But that tofu represents different things to different people.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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