What’s the Psychology of Plant-Eaters?

A September 2018 review 1 , by Daniel L Rosenfeld from Cornell University Department of Development 2 , looked at the advances and possible future directions of research into the interesting subject of the psychology of vegetarians.

Daniel L Rosenfeld, Cornell University

I bet it’s not something you thought there would be much written about – and you’d be wrong (see huge list of books and publications at end of blog). So, assuming that plant-eaters are not all simply bonkers for giving up bacon sandwiches and succulent southern fried chicken, what does research tell us about those who are often regarded as preferring to eat “rabbit food“?

Main topics

Rosenfeld refers to a 2012 review 3 which highlighted seven main topics that are covered when looking into this field:

  • dietary variations of vegetarianism
  • vegetarians’ motivations
  • attitudes toward meat
  • vegetarians’ and omnivores’ values and worldviews
  • differences between vegetarians’ and omnivores’ well-beings
  • perceptions of vegetarians and omnivores
  • links between gender, vegetarianism, and meat consumption

It was pointed out that there’s a lot of subjectivity when discussing vegetarians since there’s no generally-accepted definition of what one is! Additionally, confusion can be caused because some people call themselves vegetarians when they actually eat meat on occasion, and vegetarians vary substantially in terms of which animal products they will or will not eat.


There’s also variation in the motivations that vegetarians have for their dietary choices. These generally include:

  • personal health
  • concerns about animal cruelty
  • concerns about the environment
  • religion 
  • taste (e.g. “I avoid meat because it disgusts me.“)


The latter research 3 also mentions that there are differences between vegetarians’ and omnivores’ values and worldviews. Compared with omnivores, vegetarians tend to be:

  • more politically liberal
  • more empathetic
  • more opposed to capital punishment

And further differences exist between vegetarians and vegans, with vegans exhibiting stronger beliefs about:

  • meat consumption
  • animal welfare
  • environmental issues


The review 3 also looked at differences between women’s and men’s vegetarian views.  Men generally seem to differ from women in the following ways:

  • men view meat as a more essential part of a proper diet
  • men eat more meat than women
  • men express fewer concerns about the effects of meat consumption on animals
  • men express fewer concerns about the effects of meat consumption on the environment

This is consistent with the fact that women are more likely to be vegetarian than are men.

Research explosion

Since the above-mentioned 2012 review by Ruby, there’s been an explosion of research into the psychology of vegetarianism. And while the general areas of research fit within the above 7 groupings, there’s been a widening and deepening of the analysis. So, for instance, regarding the differences in political outlooks and worldviews between omnivores and vegetarians, a lot more detail is now known about more specific variations in attitude.

This can be seen in the differences between veganism and other forms of vegetarianism. A 2017 study 4 found that vegans were approximately 15 times more likely to be politically liberal than conservative.

Furthermore, recent research 5 6 into the relationship between meat consumption and right-wing ideology (including right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation and general conservatism) suggests that:

  • omnivores exhibit greater right-wing authoritarianism than vegetarians
  • omnivores exhibit greater and social dominance orientation than vegetarians
  • omnivores exhibit greater conservatism than vegetarians

From vegetarian back to meat-eater

A 2018 study 7  revealed an interesting detail about how conservatism predicts a greater likelihood of returning to eating meat after having been vegetarian. This is largely explained by lower feelings of social support and weaker social justice motivations (that is, less concern about animal welfare, the environment, and world hunger) when more conservative individuals initially decided to eschew meat.

Views about vegetarians

A 2017 8 and 2018 study 9 both revealed that people who endorse right-wing ideology also tend to exhibit more negative attitudes toward vegetarians and vegetarianism in general.

Charity and pets

It’s not just political orientation that seems to vary between the two groups, moral attitudes and behaviours beyond political orientation also appear to differ between vegetarians and omnivores.

A 2015 study 10 revealed the following differences:

  • vegetarians are more concerned about animal welfare than omnivores
  • vegetarians donate more money to animal-oriented charities than omnivores
  • vegetarians emphasise the moral foundation of animal harm/care more strongly than omnivores

A 2014 11 and 2018 study 12 suggested that interacting with a pet during childhood may shape one’s moral values and eating behaviours later in life. Specifically, children who own a variety of pets or become emotionally attached to a pet tend to eat less meat in adulthood. This may be attributed to their greater feelings of empathy toward animals and greater moral opposition to animal exploitation.

Further research

The foregoing is merely a taste of the range of research currently taking place in this interesting field of study. Future research will be really interesting if it deals with some of the following areas:

  • how people revise their moral values after altering their dietary habits
  • whether veganism associates with certain moral/political values to greater extents than do other forms of vegetarianism
  • the effect on food choices of different political-ideology norms across various geographical and cultural regions
  • given that health, animal welfare and the environment are shown to be the three main motivators in becoming vegetarian, it would be interesting to know which of these would be the best predictor of continuing to eat a plant-based diet
  • variations in attitude and behaviour of individuals adhering to a WFPB diet, as compared to both a vegan and a vegetarian diet
  • changes in a person’s outlook and motivation for being plant-based from when they first made the dietary change and throughout their life
  • how vegetarians with varying types of health motivations (e.g. general wellness, weight maintenance, recently having had a life-threatening health event or diagnosis) may differ from one another
  • identification of the extents to which greater emphases on harm/care, animal welfare, and liberal values are causal of and/or caused by the decision to eschew meat
  • an examination of how omnivores view vegetarians with different motivations – looking at the roles of cognitive dissonance, social comparison, social norms, and power dynamics in attitude formation

Again, these are just some of the possible areas of future research.

Final thoughts

I suppose it’s no surprise that there’s an increasing amount of research into the psychology of those who choose to eat plants instead of animals; after all, we spend hours every day of our life planning, talking about, and eating meals, and the media are covering more and more stories about how our dietary choices are affecting both human health and the health of the world we live in.

It’s hard to deny, merely from my own experience, that we hold on to our familial and cultural food habits like a drunk does his last bottle – and we are pretty much all just as reluctant as he is to accept criticism about, or to let go of, our acquired preferences about what we can/cannot or should/should not put into our stomachs.

It doesn’t seem so strange that those brought up on a plant-based diet from birth may have a different attitude towards their dietary choices than those who made the personal decision to move from eating animals to plants. Equally, it’s probably no surprise that those who choose to disavow all animal products for reasons other than personal health or dietary preferences (that is, because they are concerned about the environment and/or animal cruelty) are likely to have wider-reaching and stronger views on the veggie subject.

In my own experience, there do appear to be some psychological changes that parallel dietary changes. Being that we are basically animals with big brains, and that the body-brain system is inextricably linked together, what would be strange would be if there were no psychological changes when our bodies and brains are receiving a different class of dietary nutrients – and this is apart from those changes that would derive from alterations in philosophical outlook.

Appendix: Just some of the literature relating to the psychology of vegetarians

Adams, C. (1990). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist vegetarian critical theory. New York, NY: Continuum.

Agarwal, U., Mishra, S., Xu, J., Levin, S., Gonzales, J., & Barnard, N. D. (2015). A multicenter randomized controlled trial of a nutrition intervention program in a multiethnic adult population in the corporate setting reduces depression and anxiety and improves quality of life: The GEICO study. American Journal of Health Promotion, 29, 245-254.

Allès, B., Baudry, J., Méjean, C., Touvier, M., Péneau, S., Hercberg, S., & Kesse-Guyot, E. (2017). Comparison of sociodemographic and nutritional characteristics between selfreported vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters from the Nutrinet-Sante study. Nutrients, 9, 1023.

Anderson, E. C., Wormwood, J. B., Barrett, L., & Quigley, K. (2018). Vegetarians’ and omnivores’ affective and physiological responses to food. Food Quality and Preference, 71, 96-105.

Apostolidis, C., & McLeay, F. (2016). It’s not vegetarian, it’s meat-free! Meat eaters, meat reducers and vegetarians and the case of Quorn in the UK. Social Business, 6, 267-290.

Arbit, N., Ruby, M., & Rozin, P. (2017). Development and validation of the meaning of food in life questionnaire (MFLQ): Evidence for a new construct to explain eating behavior. Food Quality and Preference, 59, 35-45.

Arora, A. S., Bradford, S., Arora, A., & Gavino, R. (2017). Promoting vegetarianism through moralization and knowledge calibration. Journal of Promotion Management, 23, 889-912.

Asanova, A. (2017). Vegetarian diet as a risk factor for depression. Psychosomatic Medicine and General Practice, 2, e020490-e020490.

Barthels, F., Meyer, F., & Pietrowsky, R. (2018). Orthorexic and restrained eating behaviour in vegans, vegetarians, and individuals on a diet. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 23, 159-166.

Beardsworth, A. D., & Keil, E. T. (1991). Vegetarianism, veganism, and meat avoidance: Recent trends and findings. British Food Journal, 93, 19-24.

Beardsworth, A. D., & Keil, E. T. (1992). The vegetarian option: Varieties, conversions, motives and careers. The Sociological Review, 40, 253-293.

Beezhold, B., Radnitz, C., Rinne, A., & DiMatteo, J. (2015). Vegans report less stress and anxiety than omnivores. Nutritional Neuroscience, 18, 289-296.

Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 6, 1-62.

Bilewicz, M., Imhoff, R., & Drogosz, M. (2011). The humanity of what we eat: Conceptions of human uniqueness among vegetarians and omnivores. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 201-209.

Campbell T. C., & Campbell T. M. (2006). The China Study: The most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted and the startling implications for diet, weight loss and long-term health. Dallas, TX: Benbella Books.

Caviola, L., Everett, J. A., & Faber, N. S. (2018). The moral standing of animals: Towards a psychology of speciesism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi:10.1037/pspp0000182.

Cherry, E. (2015). I was a teenage vegan: Motivation and maintenance of lifestyle movements. Sociological Inquiry, 85, 55-74.

Chuter, R. (2018). Finding companionship on the road less travelled: A netnography of the Whole Food Plant-Based Aussies Facebook group (Bachelor’s thesis, Edith Cowan University).

Cliceri, D., Spinelli, S., Dinnella, C., Prescott, J., & Monteleone, E. (2018). The influence of psychological traits, beliefs and taste responsiveness on implicit attitudes toward plantand animal-based dishes among vegetarians, flexitarians and omnivores. Food Quality and Preference, 68, 276-291.

Cole, M., & Morgan, K. (2011). Vegaphobia: Derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers. The British Journal of Sociology, 62, 134-153.

Corrin, T., & Papadopoulos, A. (2017). Understanding the attitudes and perceptions of vegetarian and plant-based diets to shape future health promotion programs. Appetite, 109, 40-47.

Cramer, H., Kessler, C. S., Sundberg, T., Leach, M. J., Schumann, D., Adams, J., & Lauche, R. (2017). Characteristics of Americans choosing vegetarian and vegan diets for health reasons. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 49, 561-567.

Črnič, A. (2013). Studying social aspects of vegetarianism: A research proposal on the basis of a survey among adult population of two Slovenian biggest cities. Collegium Antropologicum, 37, 1111-1120.

Dagevos, H., & Voordouw, J. (2013). Sustainability and meat consumption: Is reduction realistic?. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy, 9, 60-69.

Dagnelie, P. C., & Mariotti, F. (2017). Vegetarian diets: Definitions and pitfalls in interpreting literature on health effects of vegetarianism. In F. Mariotti (Ed.), Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets in Health and Disease Prevention (pp. 2-10). London, UK: Academic Press.

De Backer, C. J., & Hudders, L. (2014). From meatless Mondays to meatless Sundays: motivations for meat reduction among vegetarians and semi-vegetarians who mildly or significantly reduce their meat intake. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 53, 639-657.

De Backer, C. J., & Hudders, L. (2015). Meat morals: Relationship between meat consumption consumer attitudes towards human and animal welfare and moral behavior. Meat Science, 99, 68-74.

de Boer, J., Schösler, H., & Aiking, H. (2017). Towards a reduced meat diet: Mindset and motivation of young vegetarians, low, medium and high meat-eaters. Appetite, 113, 387-397.

DeLessio-Parson, A. (2017). Doing vegetarianism to destabilize the meat-masculinity nexus in La Plata, Argentina. Gender, Place & Culture, 24, 1729-1748.

Derbyshire, E. J. (2017). Flexitarian diets and health: A review of the evidence-based literature. Frontiers in Nutrition, 3, 55.

Devine, C. M., Connors, M., Bisogni, C. A., & Sobal, J. (1998). Life-course influences on fruit and vegetable trajectories: Qualitative analysis of food choices. Journal of Nutrition Education, 30, 361-370.

Díaz, E. M. (2016). Animal humanness, animal use, and intention to become ethical vegetarian or ethical vegan. Anthrozoös, 29, 263-282.

Duchene, T. N., & Jackson, L. M. (2017). Effects of motivation framing and content domain on intentions to eat plant-and animal-based foods. Society & Animals. doi:0.63/5685306-34466.

Dyett, P. A., Sabaté, J., Haddad, E., Rajaram, S., & Shavlik, D. (2013). Vegan lifestyle behaviors. An exploration of congruence with health-related beliefs and assessed health indices. Appetite, 67, 119-124.

Earle, M., & Hodson, G. (2017). What’s your beef with vegetarians? Predicting anti-vegetarian prejudice from pro-beef attitudes across cultures. Personality and Individual Differences, 119, 52-55.

Edwards, S. (2013). Living in a minority food culture: A phenomenological investigation of being vegetarian/vegan. Phenomenology & Practice, 7, 111-125.

Ensaff, H., Coan, S., Sahota, P., Braybrook, D., Akter, H., & McLeod, H. (2015). Adolescents’ food choice and the place of plant-based foods. Nutrients, 7, 4619-4637.

Esquire. (2017, August 21). A huge number of vegetarians eat meat when they’re drunk. Esquire. Retrieved from https://www.esquire.com/uk/fooddrink/news/a16780/vegetarians-drunk-eating-meat/.

Fiestas-Flores, J., & Pyhälä, A. (2017). Dietary motivations and challenges among animal rights advocates in Spain. Society & Animals. doi:0.63/5685306-34484.

Filippi, M., Riccitelli, G., Falini, A., Di Salle, F., Vuilleumier, P., Comi, G., & Rocca, M. A. (2010). The brain functional networks associated to human and animal suffering differ among omnivores, vegetarians and vegans. PLoS One, 5, e10847.

Filippi, M., Riccitelli, G., Meani, A., Falini, A., Comi, G., & Rocca, M. A. (2013). The “vegetarian brain”: chatting with monkeys and pigs?. Brain Structure and Function, 218, 1211-1227.

Forestell, C. A. (2018). Flexitarian diet and weight control: Healthy or risky eating Behavior? Frontiers in Nutrition, 5, 59. doi:10.3389/fnut.2018.00059.

Forestell, C. A., & Nezlek, J. B. (2018). Vegetarianism, depression, and the five factor model of personality. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 57, 246-259.

Forestell, C. A., Spaeth, A. M., & Kane, S. A. (2012). To eat or not to eat red meat. A closer look at the relationship between restrained eating and vegetarianism in college females. Appetite, 58, 319-325.

Fox, N., & Ward, K.J. (2008a). Health, ethics and environment: a qualitative study of vegetarian motivations. Appetite, 50, 422-429.

Fox, N., & Ward, K. J. (2008b). You are what you eat? Vegetarianism, health and identity. Social Science & Medicine, 66, 2585-2595.

Gallimore, T. E. (2015). Understanding the reasons for and barriers to becoming vegetarian in prospective vegetarians and vegans (Doctoral dissertation, McGill University).

Gilsing, A. M., Weijenberg, M. P., Goldbohm, R. A., Dagnelie, P. C., van den Brandt, P. A., & Schouten, L. J. (2013). The Netherlands Cohort Study–Meat Investigation Cohort: A population-based cohort over-represented with vegetarians, pescetarians and low meat consumers. Nutrition Nournal, 12, 156.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on a spoiled identity. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. Graça, J., Calheiros, M. M., & Oliveira, A. (2015). Attached to meat? (Un)Willingness and intentions to adopt a more plant-based diet. Appetite, 95, 113-125.

Graça, J., Calheiros, M. M., & Oliveira, A. (2016). Situating moral disengagement: Motivated reasoning in meat consumption and substitution. Personality and Individual Differences, 90, 353-364.

Greenebaum, J. B. (2012a). Managing impressions: “Face-saving” strategies of vegetarians and vegans. Humanity & Society, 36, 309-325.

Greenebaum, J. (2012b). Veganism, identity and the quest for authenticity. Food, Culture & Society, 15, 129-144.

Greenebaum, J., & Dexter, B. (2017). Vegan men and hybrid masculinity. Journal of Gender Studies. doi:10.1080/09589236.2017.1287064.

Hartmann, C., Ruby, M. B., Schmidt, P., & Siegrist, M. (2018). Brave, health-conscious, and environmentally friendly: Positive impressions of insect food product consumers. Food Quality and Preference, 68, 64-71.

Haverstock, K., & Forgays, D. K. (2012). To eat or not to eat. A comparison of current and former animal product limiters. Appetite, 58, 1030-1036.

Hayley, A., Zinkiewicz, L., & Hardiman, K. (2015). Values, attitudes, and frequency of meat consumption. Predicting meat-reduced diet in Australians. Appetite, 84, 98-106.

Heiss, S., Coffino, J. A., & Hormes, J. M. (2017). Eating and health behaviors in vegans compared to omnivores: Dispelling common myths. Appetite, 118, 129-135.

Heiss, S., & Hormes, J. M. (2018). Ethical concerns regarding animal use mediate the relationship between variety of pets owned in childhood and vegetarianism in adulthood. Appetite, 123, 43-48.

Hibbeln, J. R., Northstone, K., Evans, J., & Golding, J. (2018). Vegetarian diets and depressive symptoms among men. Journal of Affective Disorders, 225, 13-17.

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Rosenfeld, D. L., (2018a). A comparison of dietarian identity profiles between vegetarians and vegans. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Rosenfeld, D. L., (2018b). A comparison of omnivores who are open to becoming vegetarian with those who are not. Manuscript submitted for publication.

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  2. Daniel L Rosenfeld -personal information []
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  8. People who endorse right-wing ideology also tend to exhibit more negative attitudes toward vegetarians. MacInnis & Hodson, 2017. []
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