Attitudes Towards People Based on Their Dietary Identity

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Part 2 of 3

By Maddie Judge (HRC intern)

In my last blog post I reviewed theories that meat symbolises power, dominance and masculinity, and discussed some supporting evidence from social psychology. In this post I will examine attitudes towards vegetarians and vegans as social groups based on dietary identity.


There is growing evidence that what we eat can communicate our values and beliefs to other people. From this perspective vegetarianism* is not just an alternative diet but is also a rejection of the dominant ideology of meat consumption [1, 2], and a significant challenge to social power structures [3]. Veganism in particular challenges the legitimacy of human exploitation of nonhuman animals [4]. According to Fiddes, vegetarianism also threatens beliefs about the appropriateness of treating nature as just a resource [5]. It is important to understand non-vegetarian’s perceptions of vegetarians if we hope to encourage more people to become vegetarian.

Theorist Carol Adams proposes vegetarians experience negative reactions from meat-eaters because vegetarians remind others that they are eating animals rather than just food [3]. Furthermore, Adams suggests that there are six main stereotypes that meat-eaters employ to explain someone’s vegetarianism [6]. These stereotypes include: the Ascetic, who is admired for their self-discipline and ability to reject pleasurable foods but is seen as soing something impossible for most people; the Puritan, who wants to prevent anyone from having pleasure; the Bambi Vegetarian, who is emotionally immature; the “Freak”, who just wants to be different; the Holier-than-thou Vegetarian who likes to feel superior; and the Phobic Vegetarian, who has psychological problems reflected in their food choices[6].

A recent analysis of discourses about vegans in UK newspapers identified several negative stereotypes, including vegans as; “ascetics, faddists, sentimentalists and even hostile extremists” (p. 134) [7]. The authors labelled the frequent negative portrayals of vegans as ‘vegaphobia’. The authors argued that the derogation of vegans and the separation of veganism from moral concerns about nonhuman animals indicated a wider speciesist ideology in the mainstream media [7]. The portrayal of veganism as ascetic and restrictive has also been identified in academic discourses [8].

In contrast to the largely negative depictions of vegans in UK media, a study in 2002 identified generally positive attitudes toward vegetarians in a student sample [9]. Additional findings were that women tended to be more positive toward vegetarians than men, and people low in authoritarianism were more positive than people high in authoritarianism. However, the authors acknowledged that their study involved a biased sample of mainly female college students, and did not specifically measure attitudes towards vegans [9]. Therefore, it is possible that more negative attitudes would be identified in different samples.

Other posts in this blog series:

Another study found that vegetarians tended to be seen as more virtuous than omnivores, even after the healthiness of the diet was taken into consideration [10]. This study also identified that male vegetarians tend to be seen as less masculine than male omnivores. This finding could be linked to the theory that meat is a masculine food [1, 3]. The perception that male vegetarians are less masculine may present an issue in advocating vegetarianism to men. However, in a recent study investigating the experiences of vegetarians, male vegetarians reported mostly neutral reactions from friends and family, while female vegetarians reported frequent negative reactions, especially from male family members [11]. The author suggested that hostility towards female vegetarians is an expression of patriarchal views regarding the inability of women to make rational decisions regarding their bodies [11].

The perception that vegetarians are more virtuous than omnivores does not necessarily imply that people will have positive reactions to vegetarians. A recent study involving undergraduate students found that 47% percent of participants associated negative words with vegetarians [12]. This negativity towards vegetarians increased when participants thought that vegetarians would be morally judgmental of them. The authors interpreted their findings as an example of ‘do-gooder derogation’ [12].

Based on a review of current research it is clear there is a need for more research investigating attitudes toward vegetarians and vegans as separate groups. Most psychological research has treated veganism as a subset of vegetarianism, and has merged the two in research situations. It is possible that attitudes towards vegans are more negative than attitudes towards vegetarians, as veganism may represent more of an ideological challenge to the dominant ideology of meat consumption.

Notably, there has been little research looking at perceptions of people who eat meat. Research in this area has been complicated by the lack of a commonly adopted label for this social group [2]. A study conducted in 2003 indicates the possibility of specific attitudes towards people who eat meat. This study asked participants to provide ratings of people based on their liking of different foods [13]. Participants rated people who liked red meat as less supportive of equality than people who liked other foods. This finding is consistent with the theory that red meat symbolises dominance and inequality [3, 5]

There is also relatively little research investigating the motivational bases of attitudes towards different dietary groups. My PhD research will contribute to this area by testing a possible explanatory model of individual differences in attitudes toward vegetarians, vegans, and people who eat meat, drawing on current psychological theories of prejudice.

Vegetarianism challenges both conventional social practices and deeply-held hierarchical beliefs about the superiority of humans to nonhuman animals [14]. Vegetarianism may therefore appear threatening to people who value conventionality and people who value hierarchical structures in society. It may be helpful for vegetarians to consider that negative perceptions of vegetarians do not necessarily reflect the actual behaviour or characteristics of vegetarians, but may instead reflect western ideological beliefs about meat. Continue Reading...


*Most current research in psychology tends to merge vegetarians and vegans under the label of vegetarian. In this blog I will be using the term ‘vegetarian’ to refer to both vegetarians and vegans, and will specify if a distinction has been made.


  1. Twigg, J., Vegetarianism and the meanings of meat., in The sociology of food and eating, A. Murcott, Editor 1979, Gower: Aldershot. p. 18–30.
  2. Joy, M., Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows: An introduction to carnism2010, San Francisco: Conari Press.
  3. Adams, C.J., The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory1990, New York: Continuum.
  4. Daly, J., Reducing Meat and Dairy Consumption: A Cultural Change Approach. The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, 2011. 7(2): p. 223-234.
  5. Fiddes, N., Meat: A Natural Symbol1991, New York: Routledge.
  6. Adams, C.J., Living among meat eaters: the vegetarian's survival handbook2003, New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
  7. Cole, M. and K. Morgan, Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers. The British Journal of Sociology, 2011. 62(1): p. 134-153.
  8. Cole, M., Asceticism and hedonism in research discourses of veg*anism. British Food Journal, 2008. 110(7): p. 706-716.
  9. Chin, M., B. Fisak, and V. Sims, Development of the Attitudes Toward Vegetarians Scale. Anthrozoos, 2002. 15: p. 332-342.
  10. Ruby, M.B. and S.J. Heine, Meat, morals,and masculinity. Appetite, 2011. 56: p. 477-450.
  11. Merriman, B., Gender differences in family and peer reaction to the adoption of a vegetarian diet. Feminism & Psychology, 2010. 20(3): p. 420-427.
  12. Minson, J.A. and B. Monin, Do-gooder derogation: Disparaging morally motivated minorities to defuse anticipated response. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2012. 3(2): p. 200–207.
  13. Allen, M.W. and S.H. Ng, Human values, utilitarian benefits and identification: The case of meat. European Journal of Social Psychology, 2003. 33(1): p. 37-56.
  14. Wilson, M.S. and M.W. Allen, Social psychological motivations and foundations of dietary preference, in The Psychology of Motivation, L.V. Brown, Editor 2007, Nova Science: New York.


Maddie Judge is a passionate animal advocate from Aotearoa, New Zealand. She resides in Wellington with her partner, and is undertaking a PhD in Psychology focusing on the psychological and ideological foundations of meat consumption and abstention. Her research draws on a variety of areas, including discursive and rhetorical psychology, the symbolism of meat, and cognitive-motivational models of ideology. Her wider research interests include vegan advocacy, speciesism and feminism.

Really good stuff!

Really good stuff! Definitely an interesting read. I'm looking forward to the final installment :)

Some is bias, some is true

I agree that some of the reaction is defensive by people who don't want to examine or change their food choices. We can also be better ambassadors for animals by not coming across as hostile, judgmental, etc., validating the stereotypes.

The Vegan Image in Society

It is fascinating how the human mind works, particularly with respect to rationalizing behavior. So often people will remark that vegans are "self-righteous" or "meddlesome" because "they want to change how everyone eats." Some go as far as to argue the benefits of being omnivorous and the harms of being a vegan. I fully believe that the vast majority of these people are simply insecure and are trying to convince themselves that being omnivorous is harmless. All a vegan has to do is walk into a room and there will be people who are offended, due in large part to their own self-doubts. They, therefore, have to tear down the vegan in order to feel more comfortable with themselves. So, while we vegans can do a better job of projecting a friendlier, less judgemental image, we can only do so much on our own. The rest, unfortunately, is out of our hands.

Nice piece

Very interesting, thanks.

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