If there’s one thing that we Americans love, it’s eating meat. Broiled, stewed, fried, we just can’t get enough of that cooked animal flesh. How much? Well, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumed 71.2 pounds of red meat and 54.1 pounds of poultry in 2012. And our appetite is only spreading throughout the world, as developing nations are now beginning to up their meat and dairy consumption in order to meet the demands of their growing populations.

Yet for all our joyous celebrations of meat, the idea that we could be eating too much of it is also picking up steam. In 2014, a study from the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded that, “high consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, may increase all-cause mortality.” Aside from health issues, activists and journalists alike have laid out a case that our copious supply of meat has been fueled by the cruel exploitation of laborers, the environment, and the animals themselves. And vegetarians, particularly those who choose to become one for moral reasons, also claim that meat-eaters are effectively torturing thinking, feeling, creatures for their own selfish wants.

But for most of us, these reasons aren’t really enough to change our eating habits. We’re nothing if not adept at defending our meat-loving. And now, researchers in Appetite may have figured out exactly how we do it. According to their study, it’s all about the four N’s. We rationalize eating meat, they say, because it’s either Nice, Natural, Normal, or Necessary to do so. And the more we believe in these rationalizations, the more likely we are to turn a blind eye toward suffering or to assume animals are less intelligent.

In a series of five studies, the authors attempted to map the myriad of justifications that people provided for their meat-eating, and how these justifications influenced their worldview. In the first, surveying both college students and online workers recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, they were able to notice four broad categories of reasons. Meat-eating was either necessary (“A human diet requires at least some meat”), normal (“Most people eat meat, and most people can’t be wrong”), natural (“Our human ancestors ate meat all the time”), or simply nice (“Meat is delicious”). Between 80 to 90 percent of the justifications offered fell into these categories, though at least one particularly patriotic person cited the fact that they lived in America and so were allowed to do whatever they wanted. More than one-third of the reasons fell under the “necessary” category.

In additional studies, the authors also found that the more meat someone consumed, the more likely they were to endorse these four N’s; those with dietary restrictions or vegetarian unsurprisingly didn’t need to believe that eating meat was essential to human health, as their very existence would suggest otherwise. They were also more likely to pay no mind to the idea that animals, including cows, possessed a mind of their own, or were capable of perceiving suffering. They also cared less about the environment and animal welfare, while tolerating social inequality more. And for those who strongly endorsed the four N’s, they felt less guilt about their dietary choices.

But the most worrying part of the authors’ conclusions was that omnivores were usually all-or-nothing in their rationalizations, which as the authors explain can, “lead people to overestimate the amount of evidence that favors their position.” In other words, it isn’t enough to simply want to eat meat, we often force ourselves to minimize the impact that decision can have on the world around us. And that can make crafting and supporting policies that at least try to alleviate real problems surrounding the production of meat difficult. As the authors note, many of the worst cultural practices people have enacted on one another, whether slavery or sexism, survived through the same justifications we spin out for eating our hot dogs. It was once natural to subjugate black people under a whip, necessary to prohibit women from entering the workforce, and normal to sterilize the mentally ill.

At this point, fellow meat-eaters, such as myself, might want to bury their heads in shame — though maybe not, considering these results. But perhaps that shame can propel us to begin looking at the world through a more compassionate lens, and actually confront the meaty elephant in the room. If that means eating less steak, well, that’s one sacrifice I’m personally willing to make.

Source: Piazza J, Ruby M, Loughnan S, et al. Rationalizing meat consumption. The 4Ns. Appetite. 2015.