You are what you meat


Two studies find links between social status, psychological make-up, and food choices. Andrew Masterson reports.


In the nineteenth century eating meat was associated with wealth and power. Today, not so much.

In the nineteenth century eating meat was associated with wealth and power. Today, not so much.

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Personality and social status are more influential than hunger or nutrition when it comes to eating meat, two studies have found.

Both published in the journal Appetite, the studies reveal that what meat is felt to symbolise drives much of the desire to eat it.

In the first study, Natalina Zlatevska from Monash University, and Eugene Chan of the University of Technology Sydney, both in Australia, set out to test whether the ancient association of meat with power still persists.

Through a series of experiments they found that it did, but, ironically, mainly among people who have little actual power in life.

Until quite late in the twentieth century, in many societies, meat was regarded as a foodstuff best suited to celebratory or philanthropic occasions. Its production required either land or money – both indicators of wealth and power – and its preparation and presentation were gestures of political magnanimity on the part of its owner.

A lesser, but still potent, version of meat as status symbol can be found in the tradition of the Sunday family roast.

“In mankind's evolutionary past, those who consumed meat were strong and powerful and thus man saw meat as indicative of social status,” write Zlatevska and Chan.

“This symbolic connection between meat and status persists today.”

The way in which that symbolism is expressed, however, is rather different. A range of factors, including health concerns, environmental questions and food fashion have recently seen posh dining trends veer away from large hunks of dead flesh towards more dainty cuts and a preference for fish, poultry and vegetables.

The brute association between meat and power, however, persists among people in lower socio-economic strata, “based upon psychological theories of compensation”.

Zlatevska and Chan found that people who felt themselves to have low socio-economic status preferred meat to other foods, and that the desire for meat was driven more by a need for status than by hunger. The same need was symbolised by plant-based foods.

The findings align with earlier research into other aspects of consumer behaviour, which found that people who felt they could exercise comparatively little power in their communities often compensated by buying products that symbolised high status.

The researchers say their work may help to explain why other studies have found that people in lower socio-economic strata tend to consume more meat, and especially processed meat. It may also be of value to doctors and health educators attempting to explain the negative implications of high-meat diets.

“Socioeconomic status are basic qualities that label individuals in nearly all societies around the globe and so it is necessary to understand the impacts not just on welfare or other psychological outcomes but on one's decision-making and food preference beyond nutritional outcomes,” they conclude.

In a second study, Tamara Pfeiler and Boris Egloff from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, report that individual personality traits are strongly linked not only to overall levels of meat consumption, but also to the choice of meat type.

Using data from two large public cohorts in Germany and Australia, the pair found that “personality and sociodemographic variables showed specific associations with meat consumption, depending on type of meat”.

They found, for instance, that people for whom the personality trait of “openness” was much in evidence were less likely to eat red meat but more likely to chow down on fish. The trait, however, did not affect levels of chicken consumption, nor the overall amount of meat in their diet.

Extroverts, in contrast, were more likely to consume every type of meat – and to eat more of it than their introverted peers.

Pfeiler and Egloff’s findings, however, probably won’t have much influence on food-health educators, or restaurant marketing managers. The links between meat choices and personality traits, they concluded, “were largely consistent between the samples, but effect sizes were generally small”.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30172366
  2. https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article-abstract/35/2/257/1806123?redirectedFrom=fulltext
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