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Craving a steak? Status anxiety could be one reason why

Image: AP/Matthew Mead
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Vegetarians and environmentalists often argue that meat consumption exacerbates global warming. Doctors sometimes tell their patients to eat less meat for health reasons. But the craving millions have for juicy steaks and barbecued ribs will likely persist.

Taste, obviously, plays a role. Another factor is more easily overlooked: social status.

In a recently published study, Australian researchers argue that when people perceive their socioeconomic status to be low, their desire for meat increases. They ran three experiments to test the theory. In the first, a group of business-major undergraduates were asked, among other things, to rate their perceived life satisfaction based on a fixed starting income out of college. Upon leaving, they were told they could take however many bags of beef jerky they wanted. The students who rated less satisfied with the given income took home more jerky.

In the other experiments, the researchers tested pork tacos and beef burgers. They asked one group to recall a time when they perceived their social status to be high, and the other, low. They then checked participants’ preferences for meat dishes. The results were similar. Those who had just contemplated a low status showed a stronger desire for hamburgers and pork tacos than did the other group. The difference between the two groups lessened, however, when the food in question involved no meat, such as tofu and veggie burgers.

The researchers argue that meat is symbolic of status, which is why people feeling low on status crave it. They write:

In human evolutionary history, likely attributed to its rarity and its difficulty in preparation, meat was consumed to become stronger and healthier, giving man the better opportunity to survive harsh and tough physical conditions… That meat-eating provided strength also meant that it conferred social benefits as well in that those who were able to eat meat were conferred by others status by those who were not able to eat it.

Meanwhile in contemporary culture meat-eating is often associated with manliness. Restaurants design menus to take advantage of that fact, and many men think they need to eat meat to be masculine, which can contribute to health problems.

To those wanting to decrease meat consumption—whether for health or environmental reasons—the researchers suggest looking for ways to increase perceived socioeconomic status. By way of example, they note the tagline of a Canadian bank: “You’re richer than you think.”