Cheese Challenge & Pescetarian Paradox – Psychology Researchers Maja Cullen, Devon Docherty, Carol Jasper – Sentientism Ep:200

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Devon Docherty, Carol Jasper and Maja Cullen are psychology researchers from the University of Stirling. Carol is a lecturer, Devon is a teaching assistant and Maja is a research assistant. Devon is also a researcher, writer and animal advocate with Surge and (Earthling) Ed Winters.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “who matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the YouTube video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

00:00 Clips!

01:09 Welcome

03:25 Devon, Maja and Carol Introductions

– Psychology (human-animal interactions, clinical health) and animal advocacy

– Their papers on the paradoxes and dissonances of vegetarianism and pescetarianism

– Quantitative research: “science doesn’t have to be about numbers… if we want to understand people… we need to do that with words… listen to their experiences… their own narratives… we all have positionality.”

– “Science teaching so often is based entirely in pseudo-objectivity… subjectivity can be really powerful.”

06:53 What’s Real?


– Growing up in a #presbyterian family. Attending Sunday school. Exploring celtic / pagan mythology and spirituality.

– Reading the Bible “a really beautiful book… but how can the old testament… be real?” Dad’s response: “a way that people used to understand the world around them… in the absense of other explanations”

– Now constructing narratives in a scientific domain

– Belief in the supernatural? “I’d be really hesitant to say that we have all the answers… consciousness… I want to believe that there’s a ghost in the machine although I know there isn’t”

– Celtic confluence of the ephemeral and the tangible “intertwined together… I very much believe in the concrete real but also I like to think there’s things we don’t know and we don’t understand yet… we should always be trying to find out more.”

– “Maybe it’s just… physical energy… but I like to think there’s something beyond us… hope there’s some other… maybe there’s some hope that they could come and help us get everything right.”


– “It’s really complex being a human sometimes.”

– #catholic family and school “very strict catholic teaching”

– “Religion never really resonated with me”

– “The teacher was telling us that animals don’t have souls… That was the moment that I realised that I really do have these strong views.”

– “I had a dog at the time… she was just as full and complex of a being as I was.”

– Moving away from religion to “do my own thing”

– “I’m pretty terrified of death”

– Focusing on morality “That’s my thing – rather than anything outside of the realm of what we can see and how we can treat other people”

– JW: Psychological motivations for religious belief: fear of uncertainty, fear of death, a hope that god has a plan

– “I got to learn more and more about the Catholic church and realise how much I disagree with it”

– JW: Epistemological and ethical reasons people move away from religion


– Growing up in Germany, then moving to Scotland

– “It was rare… to meet someone who wasn’t christened”

– Protestant primary, Catholic high school (with nuns) & summer camps

– Parents “went along with the status quo”

– At 11-12 “I wanted to be religious… I saw how much strength & purpose religious people could get… a beautiful & admirable thing”

– “I tried reading the Bible. I tried praying… It just didn’t feel authentic to me.”

– Vegetarian at 11-12 “The whole thing about being a devoted Christian but eating animals – that didn’t sit right with me”

– At 13: “I proudly declared to my religion teacher who was a priest that I was an #atheist.”

– “Since then… my brain works very logically… more the naturalistic kind of person… I’m not trying to be arrogant – this is just my worldview”

– Relativity and social constructivism


– JW: If we take a relativistic, social constructivist approach to epistemology how can we resist misinformation, disinformation, conspiracism, wellness scams…

– The “fish paper”… exploring how people perceive the fishes they consume

– Maja: “Our participants actually admit to fallacies in their thinking… they admit that some of the beliefs that they hold are more so that they want to believe this… they are aware that fish are not super-dumb, that fish can perceive pain…”

– Carol: “We never really know if our participants are giving us their true beliefs or not… we work with what they give us… we’re trying to understand their constructions of their reality.” Cognitive dissonance, fallacies, contradictions “often they’re aware of that themselves”

– Devon: “I do believe in objective reality… I care about sentient beings… there has to be this sense of objective reality… the evidence says that these animals do feel pain… or else what do we have?… On the other hand… a large part of this reality is constructed through our subjective experiences.”

– Carol: “I’m a completely social constructionist… there’s nothing I know that I haven’t been taught or learned… Everything is symbolic and everything is socially constructed – I don’t believe there’s any knowledge… that hasn’t been mediated through human interaction.”

– Devon: “But then how can we ever know that animals do feel pain?”

– Beliefs vs. probabilistic, provisional credences

– JW: The risks of our subjective beliefs becoming unmoored from our shared reality. Are the beliefs of the Kenyan cult leader Paul Mackenzie just as valid as that of anyone else?

– Carol: “Webs of understanding… we can still have consensus in subjectivity… that’s how ideologies are created… the way we share our representations… shared social realities… entirely socially constructed but we share them”

– JW: “Forming consensus is different from being right or wrong… Even consensuses can be demonstrably and clearly wrong… we can show that through gathering evidence… even an overwhelming consensus like fishes can’t suffer… can still be wrong because there is actually a reality which is those fishes are experiencing suffering… which does exist independently from us.”

– Carol: “We have to accept there are knowledges… there are truths… there are realities… but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all just throwing darts at a spinning globe… To make a difference… we have our beliefs… in order for us to convey that to other people we have to take at least a step into their knowledges… try to understand someone else’s perspectives.”

– The privilege of having been taught good quality epistemology

– JW: “For them – yes. But they are wrong. The guy taking people into the woods in Kenya is wrong… The people who think animals can’t feel pain – they are wrong. I’m quite comfortable saying that with a very high degree of confidence. I can understand why they might have come to think those things – but I can also have an evidence base that gives me pretty good confidence that I know better than they do.”

– Carol: “I’ve never met a vegan yet who doesn’t have quite an enquiring mind… People who are long-term vegan are… much more accustomed to being non-conformist… being different in a group… much less likely to feel the need to conform to social norms. [Devon] Much more comfortable challenging other people’s realities.”

– Carol: “Other people are often a lot less comfortable with change. People who’ve grown up on meat and dairy… they don’t want to change – they like it… I liked it too… but what I like and what is right for me became impossible… other people don’t want to think about it.”

47:55 What and Who Matters?


– “My first instinct would almost be to say that everything matters… a radical ecocentrist perspective… everything has a worth on its own and at the very least it might have a worth because it matters in one way or another to sentient beings.”

– “Prioritise the needs of the more sentient beings among us over non-sentient things – plants or rocks…”

– “My family eats horse meat… that was the reason I went vegetarian because I used to have a horse at the time and I saw my family eat horse meat… this could be my horse’s sister or brother… that’s when I started to question everything… if it’s horses that I don’t want to eat then it’s cows, then it’s many, many other animals…”

– Some research participants “felt comfortable eating fish[es] because they don’t think fish[es] feel pain”

– “I’m not one of the vegans that’s comfortable eating oysters, for example… I give all animals a different moral regard… which also may not be entirely logical”

– “It was the suffering of my horse… that I was imagining… I don’t think I would have made that connection without that social proximity to my horse.”

– “The more I informed myself the bigger and bigger my moral circle became”

– “When you become vegan it’s very common to go through the phase of judging people who are not vegan… and being very mad that people are still continuing to eat animals”

– “As I went on in life, veganism actually brought me to consider humans more… to understand that a working class mother of 5 children who’s just trying to get food on the table might not be thinking of the cows…”


– “I went straight to vegan… I became vegan kind of out of spite, really”

– Seeing vulnerable young mums targeted by an Aloe vera weight-loss cleanser

– “We can challenge other people’s realities… as long as we’re respectful”

– Doing a cleanse “which is not a thing… it’s what your body does naturally – it’s what your liver and kidneys are for”

– Cutting out caffeine, gluten, all animal products, sugar and alcohol for a week – then a month

– “The first few days were horrible – I had a headache in my legs”

– “I realised just how much cognitive dissonance I had lost… resolved… I felt so much lighter – so much happier… I just realised how much I’d been dumbing down my own internal conflict about eating animals… I sold myself all the lies [humane, high welfare]…”

– “At the end, when I hadn’t eaten any animal products for a month I just felt so good… my head just felt in a really nice place. I’ve never eaten an animal product ever since.”

– Devon: “You did go back to caffeine, alcohol, sugar…” 😊

– “I became vegan by accident really… I just didn’t think about it… I then retrospectively learned a lot about what it means to be vegan… I did it all back to front.”

– Insects, bees, shellac, honey, silk, mosquitoes, ticks, lice… Devon: “vegans care about all insects and they do their best within their abilities not to cause harm… if you don’t know [about the sentience of a type of being] it’s best to be cautious about it.”

– “How do we draw those boundaries… Why do we prioritise some of those creatures over others?”

– Farmed insects as a meat source “I would object to that”


– “I always think there are clearer boundaries whereas Carol tends to think they’re more blurred”

– A bad experience with a mosquito-borne illness. Self-defence as a justification?

– “While I might not particularly have a love for mosquitoes I would still consider them morally”

– “I’ve just really always felt a huge pull towards non-human animals and a huge pull to advocate for them”

– Growing up in a “’normal’, meat-eating household.” Family still eat animals

– “From a very young age… I just didn’t want to eat animals… there was just something I couldn’t articulate there… I didn’t learn it from anywhere – my parents weren’t expressing these ideas”

– “I just always felt like I had this knowledge that they were just as important as us and they should be treated just as morally as us”

– Asking parents about where chicken and beef come from “they did lie about it – they were doing their best to protect me… ‘we find the meat when the animal has already died naturally’”

– Spending time with horses and cows “really seeing their individual personalities come through… my favourite cow was Janice… one day those cows were gone…”

– Asking the farmer where the cows had gone. “He just told me… ‘they’ve gone to be made into hamburgers’ and that’s when it really dawned on me… I really appreciate him as an adult just being honest with me as a child because I could take it… I don’t think we don’t give kids enough credit… I don’t think we should necessarily shield them from the reality of things as much as we do… definitely not when it comes to how we treat other sentient beings… That really started my journey of advocating… for non-human animals.”

– Going vegetarian at 10 yrs old

– “I felt that humans already had enough people advocating for them… there wasn’t enough being said on behalf of and for these other animals”

– Going vegan “when I found out about the dairy industry…”

– Environmentalism “Morally we need to take into consideration the whole ecosystem however my specific focus is on sentient beings and specifically non-human animals”

Matti Wilks Sentientism episode “Children are much less speciesist than adults”

– “We are born with a far more broad and a stronger sense of morality than we have as adults… it just gets eroded over time as we’re socialised”

– JW: Stopping bad education is arguably more important than doing good education re: ethics and epistemology

01:12:05 A Better World?

– JW: Exploring why most humans already care about some non-human sentient beings… but why not all of them? It’s not just about breaking anthropocentrism it’s about “filling out the sentiocentrism in a sufficiently rich way that everyone gets included”
The Pescetarian dissonance and distancing paper

– Maja: “They do find themselves in such a grey zone… what’s the difference when it comes to non-mammalian marine animals?”

– Cognitive dissonance “they care about animals but they also still contribute to their killing… what strategies humans use to rationalise… to alleviate this dissonance… to not question ‘am I a horrible human for contributing to animal suffering’”

– Using distances vs. fishes – spatial, social, physical

– “Our best way to advocate for all animals is to increase our exposure to them… tap into their realities as much as possible… we share a world. We share an ecosystem.”

– Jonathan Balcombe’s book “What a Fish Knows”-

The Cheese Paradox paper

– JW: “Not a boundary of different species… a boundary within the treatment of one species”

– Devon: “Academic interest and also personal – I had made that… quite profound transition…  between vegetarian and vegan”

– “They’re often put together – vegetarian and vegan – as if they’re one thing… In my perspective it was a totally huge transformation – my worldview exploded when I went vegan… more… big ideas to contend with… a philosophical shift”

– Previous papers focused on why vegetarians give up meat but not how they feel about the animal products they continue to consume

– “We did actually find a bit of a conflict about these animal products… cognitive dissonance… felt uncomfortable about eating them… however… personal incentives… convenient… easier in a social sense… really liked the taste… thought could get a lot of nutrition from it that they’d struggle with on a plant-based diet.”

– Perceived differences between milk and cheese “Cheese is transformed from the state that it came out of the cow… it’s more abstract shape… textural changes… that allows people to distance themselves from the morality of it… from the living animal that the product came from.”

– “Quite surprising that… our sample… had quite a high awareness… of the environmental problems… of the moral problems”

– Maja: “We do need raised visibility and we do need dialogue.” The mistrust of the animals industry “the facts we’re being fed… the images that are constructed.” “…a very broad intersectional perspective… It’s a systemic problem… us collectively building knowledge and reshaping how we perceive all animals or all sentient beings… a collective duty… change policies as well – based on evidence.”

– Devon: “It’s all well and good saying that [systemic problem] but actually getting it done is another matter. It’s really complex to enact change at that level… We should all take this moral responsibility for ourselves… the consumers… the individual behaviour is at the base… if we removed our support for these things it would all topple like a house of cards… Take pride in your own advocacy. Don’t doubt the impact you can have – it can be huge… individual action and behaviour… that’s really how all change happens: A group of individuals being passionate and steadfast… educating… Individual behaviour is everything… yes it forms the collective but we need to think about the parts that are making up the collective… You are going to make a change!”

– Carol: The privilege of teaching thousands of students every year “thinking about all of these bigger topics… who is knowledge created for?… who does it exclude?… what are the injustices that our knowledge processes perpetuate?… there are so many pernicious power structures… I can be quite naïve sometimes because I spend so much time with amazing young people like Devon and Maja… It makes me feel really confident for the future… definitely want to make a difference and are equipped to do so… open people’s minds… wider ideas about injustice and inequality and power and exploitation… racism, misogyny, oppressive systems… I hope more education can be just that little bit disruptive of the institutions at large… The way things are are not the way things have to be. We have to change – there’s no way around that.”

– Devon: “Having someone [an education disruptor like Carol] actually saying to you as a young person ‘yes this matters, yes you should be talking about this and yes I will support you in this’ – that’s something I’d never had in my passion for non-human animal rights… I was always being told from professors ‘Oh don’t be so biased’… Just having one person to say to you ‘I’m behind you and I’m going to support you’… someone who’s in a position of power… The power of the individual to make a ripple effect – Carol is a really good example of that.”

– Carol: “There’s this really pernicious idea that because we’re vegans we’re biased… we’re all biased… me being vegan doesn’t make me any more biased than it does that I’m a feminist.” In research disclosing openly the perspectives of the researchers “We want to achieve animal liberation”: “That’s why we got those really lovely insights is because our participants knew they were talking to vegans… maybe took a step back from maybe a more glib response…”

– “We’re not going to be able to do that [achieve animal liberation] unless we respectfully engage with people who have different opinions.”

– Devon: “All we’re trying to do here is get people to live a more conscious life… not to live on autopilot… resorting to that autopilot is kind of a survival mechanism… however if each of us can live a little more consciously… think about the consequences of our choices… is that a necessary choice?… do we have another choice?”

– JW: “We’re not trying to persuade people to adopt different values. We’re almost trying to persuade people to have the confidence to live in line with the values they already have…”

01:37:15 Follow!

Carol: @DrCarolJasper, @veganfoodtrainer
Maja: @maja_cullen_
Devon: @devonmdocherty, Devon on LinkedIn, @earthlinged

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