On the savanna a lioness will fell and shred her prey without empathy. Yet for we humans who can imagine that a cow might feel pain, pleasure and fear, enjoying animal flesh may have moral overtones. New research indicates that we have developed a mental tool to help us cope with the realities of our carnivorous nature: denial.

In a study that excluded vegetarians, psychologist Brock Bastian of the University of Queensland in Australia and his colleagues first asked par­ticipants to commit to eating either meat slices or apple wedges. Before eating, everyone wrote an essay describing the full life cycle of a butchered animal and then rated the mental faculties of a cow or a sheep. Participants who knew that they would have to eat meat later in the study made much more conservative assessments of the animal mind, on average, denying that it could think and feel enough to suffer. The study was published last October in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“People engage in the denial of mind in animals to allow them to engage in the behavior of eating animals with less negative effect,” Bastian says. The re­searchers argue that although humans have the ability to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes—or hooves—doing so is not always helpful. People living in carnivorous cultures may have developed this strategy of denial to better align their morals with their traditions so they may continue to consume meat without being consumed by guilt.

This article was published in print as "The Carnivore's Dilemma."