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Clean meat is not a panacea

I am a very strong advocate of “clean” or “cultured” meat – meat that is grown in a lab rather than in an animal. But it’s because I’m a strong advocate that I think it’s better to look at what the evidence says and not let our biases get in the way.

And based on the results of two experiments, I suspect there will be more resistance to clean meat than we’d like to think.

Bobbie Macdonald and I did a set of two experiments leveraging Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a site which allows people to take surveys for money. We focused on U.S. respondents, as the U.S. is one of the first places where clean meat is expected to be made commercially available.

First, we found that while many people were very excited about clean meat, a large group was concerned that it wouldn’t taste good, that it would be too expensive, and that it was “unnatural” and vaguely unsafe or unhealthy.

In one of our papers, we tried to overcome the “naturalistic heuristic” that people seemed to be using to judge clean meat to be unhealthy even in the absence of any evidence that this was the case (in fact, a subset of the sample was provided with evidence that clean meat may be healthier than conventional meat). We tried several messaging strategies: an approach that tried to directly debunk the idea that “natural is good” (“direct debunking”); an approach that noted that many of the food products respondents currently enjoy are “unnatural” (“embrace unnatural”); and a descriptive norms approach (“descriptive norms”). We also randomly primed half the sample with real negative statements about the “unnaturalness” of the product made by participants in another study. The negative priming turned out to have stronger effects than any of the messages intended to help overcome the naturalistic heuristic, with the “embrace unnatural” message faring the best among the latter.

The strong effect of the negative priming treatment is a bit worrisome, because we can easily imagine that if clean meat begins to threaten conventional meat producers, some of them may engage in campaigns to spread distrust via these kinds of negative social information.

In our other paper, we explored a different topic: whether merely knowing about clean meat products could change ethical beliefs. Standard models of cognitive dissonance (e.g. Rabin, 1994) would suggest that if people believe the costs of avoiding meat from factory farms are high, they will be less receptive to information about the environmental costs or the harm caused to animals by factory farming. If clean meat is regarded as a good substitute, it could lower the costs of avoiding meat from factory farms (e.g. by lowering monetary costs or being a closer substitute in taste and nutrition than vegetarian products). Thus, upon receipt of new information (e.g. a video about factory farming), people may be more receptive to it and likely to shift their ethical beliefs.

Contrary to expectations, we saw no effect on ethical views – until we restricted attention to those who viewed clean meat positively (remember: many thought that clean meat would not be a good substitute). Since it was possible that those who viewed clean meat positively were also more likely to change their views, to identify the causal effect of a positive perception of clean meat on ethical views we leveraged the randomized priming treatment previously described as an instrument. Those who were randomly selected to be shown negative statements about the “unnaturalness” of clean meat were less likely to view clean meat positively and were also less likely to exhibit changes in their ethical beliefs upon viewing the video. From a broader economics perspective, this is very interesting: it implies our ethical beliefs are a function of the products around us.

None of this is to say that companies developing clean meat products won’t be wildly successful. They could also help directly mitigate the effects of factory farming by providing a product that at least some proportion of the population will substitute towards. Further, while we did not observe shifts in ethical values on net in our experiments, it is possible that over time more people will perceive clean meat positively and clean meat will affect ethical values in the long run.

Nonetheless, these experiments suggest that there is still room for animal advocacy organizations to make a difference in changing people’s ethical views, and while some conventional meat companies have shown interest in clean meat, clean meat companies should prepare for negative advertising campaigns, since the effects of negative messages can be tough to overcome.

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