Social influence in food choices: the good and the bad

Own’s perception of gender matters for meat consumption and vegetarianism

Social influence has been consistently used by scholars to promote a greener diet. Yet, societal expectations about food, such as the association between masculinity and meat or a high national consumption of meat, can deter people from fruit and vegetable consumption. In this study, societal expectations about meat and its implications for future interventions are explored.

Although social influence can be used to encourage people towards healthier food choices (Higgs et al. 2019), societal expectations about food can be a barrier to more plant-based diets. Multiple articles have established a link between masculinity and meat consumption (Tuohy, 2021 ; Rozin et al., 2012), which would prevent men from switching to a more plant-based diet, since men would have to eat meat to enact their masculinity and would be seen as less masculine if they were to follow a plant-based diet (Schrock and Schwalbe, 2009 ; Vandello et al., 2008).

Indeed, men have been consistently shown to eat more meat than women, and they are generally less open to veganism and vegetarianism (Daniel et al., 2011 ; Nakagawa & Hart, 2019), with vegetarianism being associated with femininity (Mycek, 2018). Even more so, a recent survey found that almost 3 in 4 Australian men claim they would rather have a decade taken from their life expectancy than give up meat (Tuohy, 2021)

Since it appears that it is not being male but enacting masculinity that leads to the rejection of following a more plant-based diet, a recent study (Stanley et al., 2023) surveyed 4897 Australian men and women and explored the extent to which self-perceived masculinity and femininity explains differences in intentions to assume a more plant-based diet and to reduce meat consumption.

More masculine men are more resistant to reducing their meat intake

When asked how often they had reduced their meat consumption in the past year, men reported less frequency than women, which is consistent with the general trend of men eating more meat than women (Daniel et al., 2011). Importantly, the more men considered themselves as masculine, the less likely they were to have reduced their meat consumption in the last year. On the contrary, women’s perception of their gender was not related to how often they reduced their meat consumption.

These results are consistent with the idea that meat consumption allows men to enact their masculinity and be perceived as more of a man (Schrock and Schwalbe, 2009). Indeed, Australian culture places high value on barbeque, with this style of cooking seen as a ‘masculine’ activity (Nath, 2011). Femininity is less precarious than masculinity, and thus doesn’t require a constant demonstration to maintain (Vandello et al., 2008).

More gender-conforming men and women are less likely to consider vegetarianism

Men reported considering vegetarianism less than women. Since having a vegetarian diet is a behavior generally typed as feminine (Mycek, 2018), this result was expected. A more surprising result is that women who identify as more feminine were also less likely to consider veganism compared to women who felt less feminine, although this trend was less strong than for men.

The authors propose that adopting vegetarianism would be a violation of a societal expectation for both men and women in Australia. Indeed, Australians are almost exclusively omnivores (Sawe, 2017) and Australia has been labeled the “meat-eating capital of the world” (Ting, 2015), showing how much meat consumption is embedded in Australian culture.

This can potentially explain why femininity and masculinity similarly reduce intentions to follow a vegetarian diet. Specifically, those who are more likely to conform to societal expectations of their gender (i.e., masculinity for men and femininity for women) may be also less likely to engage in behaviors that deviates from food societal norms, such as going vegetarian.

It is possible to counteract social influence as a barrier to plant-based diets

This study is a great example of how social influence can be a barrier to adopting a plant-based diet, especially in countries with high meat consumption and where meat is related to masculine activities. Of course, interventions can be implemented to counteract this influence. When it comes to masculinity, masculine-friendly ways to encourage men to abstain from eating meat should be explored, especially since research suggests that men and women are equally likely to maintain a vegetarian diet (Hodson & Earle, 2018).

For example, more masculine men might be more open to plant-based meats, which increasingly emulate their farmed meat counterparts in looks, packaging, taste, and social role, thus enabling participation in gendered gatherings like barbeques (Nath, 2011). When it comes to high meat-consumption national norms, advertising a dynamic norm of increasing meat abstention could encourage citizens to change their behavior towards a plant-based diet (Sparkman & Walton, 2017).

Based on: Stanley, S. K., et al. Masculinity Matters for Meat Consumption: An Examination of Self-Rated Gender Typicality, Meat Consumption, and Veg* nism in Australian Men and Women. Sex Roles, 2023; 88(3-4): 187-198.

Key messages
  • More masculine men are more resistant to reducing their meat intake.
  • More gender-conforming men and women are less likely to consider vegetarianism.
  • It is possible to counteract social influence as a barrier to plant-based diets.
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