Carnism versus terrorism: the most extreme example of irrational fear

Fear can be useful as it can increase our survival and health. But fear can also be irrational, namely when we believe that one threat is more dangerous than another, less serious threat or when we feel more fear of the less serious threat. Sometimes we do not feel scared enough of a more serious threat. The monster illusion can be used as a metaphor of irrational fear: it appears as if one monster is bigger than the other, but our visual perception can be misleading. Our risk perception can also be misleading.

monster illusion

Psychologists have studied why we are so often susceptible to irrational fear, but I will not go into the cognitive biases literature here. Instead I will present an extreme example of irrational fear: terrorism versus carnism.

In Western Europe the past decades, there were less 50 deaths per year due to terrorist attacks. That is less than 0,1 deaths per million people per year. How does this compare to carnism?

For those who don’t know the word: carnism is an ideology, the counterpart of veganism as ideology. According to carnism, eating some animal products is good or permissible. Our meat overconsumption is the result of this carnist ideology. So we can compare carnists (people who eat animal products) with vegans (people who eat plant-based or animal-free). According to one study, an average carnist (omnivore) diet is compared with a vegan diet in 2050. The carnist diet will kill more than 8 million people more than the vegan diet worldwide. That is almost 1000 deaths per million people per year. (This value also corresponds with other studies, such as the Global Burden of Disease, as well as with values of Western Europe.)

If we are scared of terrorists, how much should we fear animal products on our plate? Indeed, carnism is about 10.000 times deadlier than terrorism. The meat on our plate is 10.000 times more dangerous than terrorists.

Now we can compare the fear response in society. How much attention is given to terrorism, and how much to carnism? I cannot think of another example of irrational fear that is more extreme than this difference between carnism and terrorism.

Furthermore, the fear response to terrorism can have negative side-effects. People might avoid public transport and use cars instead, resulting in more traffic accidents. People might vote for populist right winged parties, resulting in a policy with immigration restrictions instead of freer migration and a legal system with retributive justice instead of restorative justice. This results in more discrimination and oppression of minority groups. Immigration restrictions also causes very high economic damages and maintains the largest pay gap in the world: the wage differences between the developed and less developed countries (see also here). Similarly, more retributive justice might even increase recidivism.

Meat consumption feels safe, because in a carnist ideology, meat is considered necessary, normal or natural. However, animal products are no longer necessary: in our modern day western society, we can get our essential protein, vitamins and minerals from vegan food as well. For example: plant-based soy milk enriched with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, available in most supermarkets, can be a healthier substitute of cow milk (it contains all essential nutrients of cow milk, plus healthy fibers and isoflavones instead of unhealthy saturated fats and germs). Carnists often criticize veganism because it requires the supplementation of vitamin B12, which seems unnatural. But those carnists drink pasteurized milk and eat fermented cheese and processed meat, which is far from natural. And the livestock animals also have B12 supplements in their feed. This fear of unnaturalness is another clear example of irrational fear which can be very damaging.


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  1. Pingback: Irrationele invloeden, deel 4: hoe kosten-baten denkfouten vermijden? – Centrum voor Rationaliteit en Ethiek

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