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You Don't Really Want that Burger—You Want Higher Social Status

An evolutionary leftover makes it hard to convince people to shift to a vegetarian diet.
Real men, it is said, eat meat.

Real men, it is said, eat meat.

Environmentalists have long argued that one way we can all help combat climate change is to eat less meat. But meat consumption is actually rising, both in the United States and globally.

Why is it so hard to give up the roast, the burger, and the barbecued breast? Recent research provides a surprising answer. It finds eating meat is a symbolic act—a way of declaring, to yourself and those around you, that you are a prominent, prestigious person.

Given that you can buy a cheeseburger at McDonald's or Burger King for a bit more than a buck, that seems absurd. But Australian researchers Eugene Chan and Natalina Zlatevska argue meat has been associated with high rank for most of human history.

"In mankind's evolutionary past, those who consumed meat were strong and powerful," they write in the journal Appetite. "Thus, man saw meat as indicative of social status. This symbolic connection persists today."

The researchers describe three experiments that provide evidence for this thesis. The most telling one featured 179 meat-eating American adults recruited online.

Participants began by recalling a time in which they perceived themselves in a superior or inferior position in relation to their peers. They were asked to describe the specific circumstances that led to this realization, and the feelings it evoked.

They then filled out a Sense of Power scale, describing the degree to which they agreed with statements such as "If I want to, I get to make the decisions."

Afterwards, they were presented with a photo and a written description of a meat product—a pork taco—and asked to rate its desirability on a one-to-nine scale. Finally, they gave an estimate of the size of the gap between wealthy and poor in their home state.

The researchers report participants primed to think of themselves as low in social status gave the meat taco higher marks. The results are consistent with those of a separate laboratory study, in which undergraduates who felt low in status took home more free samples of beef jerky than those who saw themselves as high status.

Intriguingly, this effect was stronger in states with greater levels of social inequality (as estimated by the participants). Needless to say, status is a more urgent matter when there are large gaps between social classes.

A final study found this dynamic did not occur when the food in question was veggie burgers. What's more, it "cannot be explained by felt hunger," the researchers add.

Given that social status is widely considered an innate human drive, these results would appear to be bad news for the planet. Not necessarily, argue Chan and Zlatevska.

"Status is subjective and malleable to an extent," they note. "An unexpected salary bonus, other people praising one's work, or simply comparing oneself to others lower or higher on the socioeconomic ladder can shift perceptions of one's own status."

So physicians who would like to encourage healthy, vegetable-heavy diets could make that suggestion to their patients after subtly conveying respect and honor. This research suggests that could be far more effective than a stern admonition.

Of course, meat consumption is driven by a variety of factors, including taste, habit, and—for men—the notion that it conveys masculinity. (A recent Italian study found women prefer men who eat meat, rating them as more attractive.) But that, too, is likely related to assumptions about status.

So curbing meat consumption will require changing some fundamental beliefs. Real men, it is said, eat meat. But in fact, men who are comfortable with their social standing are more likely to prefer pasta primavera.