The Way to a Meat Eater’s Heart

Investigating the effect of appealing and unappealing plant-based alternatives on meat consumption.

People reported a stronger preference for plant-based meals when they saw an appealing vegan dish vs. an unappealing vegan dish. This evidence supports the view that better meat-free options increase the preference for plant-based eating.  – Abby Couture & Chris Bryant


The ethical concern about farming of animals for food is becoming an increasingly mainstream issue. One survey of UK adults found that over 70% of respondents found common animal farming practices unacceptable. At the same time, many meat-eaters find giving up animal based products a difficult task.

This is largely due to the key barrier of taste and sensory enjoyment. Given that people generally consider themselves moral, this justification presents an ethical conundrum. The cognitive dissonance between wanting the taste of meat, but wanting to care about animal suffering leads to substantial motivated reasoning among those that continue to eat meat. 

One form of motivated reasoning is to deny that animals can suffer. For instance, when people are given beef to consume (compared to nuts), they subsequently decrease their moral concern for cows. Similarly, those preparing to eat meat are motivated to deny the mind in animals and those that do feel better for doing so. 

However, the increase in improved meat alternatives may lead meat eaters to engage in less motivated reasoning if given the option to eat appetising vegan meat alternatives. Wider availability of meatless dishes is associated with greater uptake of meatless options.

In this study, we set out to investigate the impact of presenting appealing or unappealing vegan or meat options on participants’ preference for plant-based food.


Participants in the study were randomly assigned to one of five conditions: two groups viewed images of fried chicken (one appealing, and one unappealing), while another two groups viewed an image of a vegan burger (one appealing, and one unappealing). The final group served as the control, who were not presented with any picture.

Participants answered a series of questions; those who were shown food images were asked to rate how appealing the food was on a sliding scale of 0 to 100. All respondents were then asked to estimate what percentage of meat sold in the UK they thought was derived from factory farms, how much they agreed that animals can feel pain, and lastly, they rated their preferences for a plant-based or a meat meal.


Exposure to appealing vegan food (vs. unappealing vegan food) is associated with a significantly stronger preference towards a plant-based meal over a meat meal.

Being exposed to unappealing meat meals did not influence one’s preference for vegan foods, and the different meals had no effect on estimates of animals’ pain capacity nor estimates of factory farming. 

Impact & Recommendations

  • Exposure to appetising meat alternatives appeared to have a positive impact on general preference for plant-based meals.

  • Indeed, taste is a vital factor to consider in tandem with attempts to appeal to an individual’s moral values when considering the uptake of a more plant-based diet. 

  • The preference for plant-based food after seeing appealing vegan food over unappealing vegan food suggests that the marketing of appealing meat alternatives is crucial for encouraging an increased integration of plant-based foods into people’s diets.