Paul Rozin on moralisation of food

grandstandLast week, I received an invitation to a talk by Paul Rozin – a Professor of Psychology whose name is well-known to anyone interested in the field of food studies. The author of the notion of “the omnivore’s paradox”, he has written extensively on human food choice, preferences, and aversions, primarily from psychological and anthropological perspectives. The seminar is hosted by the Centre for Decision Research at Leeds and is talking place on the 8th of July. The long title of the talk – “Understanding collisions of sacred values and emotions (disgust) with scientific findings:  Water recycling, insect ingestion, and natural preference (opposition to GMOs)” – promises an insight into the issues that are, directly and indirectly, pertinent to the focus of my research. Of particular interest to me is the role of people’s values and emotions in determining their consumption patterns and the implications of this relationship for achieving population level behavioural changes needed to address today’s environmental, societal, and public health challenges. I find especially exciting aspects of the talk relating to public acceptance of insects as a source of food and the adoption of GMOs.

Prompted to have a closer look at Prof. Rozin’s work, I stumbled upon a rather dated article (Rozin et al., 1997) which provides an interesting discussion on the relationships between morality and vegetarianism that I found helpful in developing my thinking about individuals’ engagement in ethical food practices. One of the key foci of the paper is the notion of moralisation – the concept which I find extremely relevant to ethical consumption. Rozin and colleagues describe moralisation as a process through which “objects or activities that were previously morally neutral acquire a moral component” (1997, p. 67), both at the individual and broader socio-cultural levels. They conceive of the process of moralisation as a transformation of preferences into values – the difference between the two is that values are held to be more stable, more central to the person’s inner self and more internalized (McCauley et al., 1995 cited in Rozin et al., 1997, p. 67).

Rozin et al. take this psychological framework and apply it to vegetarianism. The paper discusses two subsets of non-meat eaters – moral and health vegetarians – a distinction that is quite common in the literature (see, for example, Greenebaum, 2012) and, in my view, a justified one. Despite the differences in the underlying motivations for the avoidance of animal foods, both groups are, in effect, the products of the process of moralisation of meat consumption. Back at the time of writing, it was still in its incipient stages – the avoidance of meat was neither embraced by a significant segment of the society nor endorsed by major public institutions. It is certainly fair to say that the process of moralisation of meat-eating is now in full swing – the number of the devotees of a plant-based diet around the world has reached millions, vegetarian options are commonly found on restaurant menus, and reduced consumption of meat is being advocated as a response to the most pressing environmental concerns. Interestingly, among the factors that can promote moralisation of meat-eating on an individual level the authors suggest strong affective experiences, such as witnessing the slaughter of animals, and cognitive factors, e.g. exposure to information about animal welfare issues. This fits surprisingly well with my study findings: the participants’ stories of how they came to embrace vegetarianism feature accounts of precisely this type of affective experiences – visiting factory farms, seeing caged or chained animals, etc. Cognitive factors, such as information about animal-cruelty issues, also played an important role in alerting people to concerns about non-human beings and boosting their commitment to meat-free lifestyles.

Another observation that I share with Rozin and colleagues concerns individuals’ longing for consistency between values and actions. The paper interprets it through a psychological concept of cognitive consistency, which prompts people to eliminate contradictions between expressed values and actual behavior. I discussed this issue at length in my previous posts linking it to the notions of self-identity and personal integrity, and essentially conveying the same idea expressed in sociological terms.

I am looking forward to attending Prof. Rozin’s talk and will share my main takeaways in one of the future posts.


Greenebaum, J. (2012). Veganism, Identity and the Quest for Authenticity. Food, Culture & Society, 15(1), 129-144.

Rozin, P., Markwith, M., & Stoess, C. (1997). Moralization and becoming a vegetarian: The transformation of preferences into values and the recruitment of disgust. Psychological Science, 8(2), 67-73.


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