Affective consumption: on emotions and food

crackers-2067632__340This week Leeds University Business School hosted a special guest – Paul Rozin, a Professor of Psychology and the author of multiple publications (I discussed one of them here) on various aspects of the relationships between humans and food. On Wednesday, he gave a talk on the psychology behind negative public attitudes towards scientific and technological advances in food production and, more specifically, the role of emotions and morality as barriers against the adoption of innovative food solutions. The talk addressed three separate issues – water recycling, GM agriculture, and insect farming – and was full of fascinating psychological insights which I kept relating to the observations gleaned from my own research on ethical consumers.

One concept that I found particularly interesting is the idea of contagion which Prof. Rozin introduced to explain the nature of the basic human emotion of disgust. It refers to people’s perceptions of certain objects as defiled and contagious which is what provokes a strong aversion to them. Interestingly, spiritual impurity is just as powerful a deterrent as physical contamination – thus, almost anyone will recoil in disgust when offered a drink with a cockroach in it, even if told that the insect was sterilised and carries no risk of infection. Unlike material contamination, spiritual contagion is irreversible with no kind of physical transformation being able to rectify a once tarnished object. In any culture, there are certain objects and activities that fill people with deep moral abhorrence as they have come to be viewed as violations of society’s unwritten code of principles and values. According to Prof. Rozin, this is the outcome of the process of moralisation, through which formerly value-neutral activities acquire moral significance or, to be more specific, preferences get transformed into values. One important societal function that moralisation performs is that it licences censure – no one can dictate a person what to eat in so far as it is a matter of personal preference and until individual eating choices begin to have moral implications (which is how all consumption is currently being framed).

As I was listening to this, a key difference between mainstream and ethical consumers became very clear – for the latter, choosing ingredients for a weekday dinner ceased to be a matter of preference and, instead, became a value-laden and value-expressive activity. My research findings also corroborate the key role of emotions and, specifically, the feeling of disgust, in ethical consumers’ avoidance of meat products. Strong aversion to animal foods may develop as the result of moralisation of meat consumption (various factors can be responsible for imbuing meat-eating with moral meanings – direct experiences of and exposure to information about the specifics of animal farming were the most prevalent among the participants of my study) or be an outcome of a life-long avoidance of meat – thus, some of my subjects were raised as vegans/vegetarians, have never tried meat and, therefore, never came to see it as “food”. In the latter case, however, the feeling of disgust towards animal-derived products does not necessarily have a moral underpinning, and may simply arise from a long-established eating habit. On the other hand, moral abhorrence often leads to physical rejection of the product in question – indeed, comments on how the mere thought of eating animal flesh provokes negative bodily reactions, such as nausea, were common among vegan and vegetarian participants of my study.

Spiritual and physical aversion to meat is both a result of long-lasting abstention and, in many cases, an important factor ensuring the stability of a person’s dietary practice. While for an individual ethical consumer dietary fears are an enabling influence as far as the continuity of food commitments is concerned, their effects are a lot less constructive when considered at a larger societal level. Thus, Prof. Rozin talked about how both instinctive and culturally cultivated disgust inhibits public adoption of the latest innovations in food production, such as water recycling, genetic modification, and insect farming. While I find the GM example rather controversial since many would argue that GM-derived foods pose threats far beyond merely spiritual (the scientific evidence on the risks and benefits of bioengineered produce is, indeed, far from conclusive), the argument certainly holds true for the other two examples – despite being perfectly safe and, moreover, effective solutions to the global problems of water and food insecurity, the idea of drinking recycled urine or eating insects fills most people with disgust. At the same time, hardly anyone knows that the water we currently drink almost certainly once was urine (Prof. Rozin mentioned rather amusing findings suggesting that Europeans can’t avoid drinking water that has not been through the urinary tract of a dolphin), neither are we aware of consuming insects or parts of them that are present – well in line with the governmental standards – in flour and baked products.

The dominance of emotions and deeply ingrained moral instincts over scientific evidence and facts is not only an interesting phenomenon to explore, but also a significant hurdle on the way towards changing public dietary behaviour and resolving global food challenges. What Prof. Rozin suggests as potentially effective solution to overcoming emotional resistance to new food technologies is what he refereed to as “fighting moral with moral” – that is, to justify potentially offensive nutrition solutions on moral grounds. One example of such PR strategy is Golden Rice – a genetically modified version of rice enriched with vitamin A that was introduced in India to help fight vitamin deficiency prevalent among local population (although yellow-coloured grain still failed to achieve widespread adoption in India for cultural reasons).

My main take-away from Prof. Rozin’s fascinating talk is that the field of cultural psychology can provide valuable insights into the role of human emotions as subjective influences on individuals’ commitment to ethical eating, and I hope to explore this field further.

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