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Psychosociological Effects of Factory Farming: How Killing Animals Changes People and Society

Stacy writes about tricky topics such as animal rights, veganism, and the death penalty.

Psychosociological Effects of Factory Farming

Psychosociological Effects of Factory Farming

Factory Farms: Abuse Before Slaughter

Moral principles are the standards of conduct that individuals have constructed for themselves, or a body of obligations and duties that a particular society requires of its members. Moral behavior is necessary for stable social groups (Ridley, 1996; de Waal, 1996; Broom, 2003; 2006) and must evolve. However, the biblical concept of man’s dominion over animals is still the foundation of most people's attitudes toward animals (Gatward, 2001).

The argument that rights should be confined to humans is problematic on several levels. First, one must locate the biological criterion that definitively separates humans from animals—a problematic endeavor. Even assuming such a thing could be accomplished, one would then face the equally difficult task of explaining why a biological characteristic should determine access to moral consideration (Cassuto, 2007).

As a result of man’s belief that he has dominion over non-human animals, animals have been relegated as instruments of labor and production, as beasts of burden. Although society seems to recognize the inequities involved in excluding animals from the moral community, it continues to facilitate industrial agriculture and the complete commodification of animals. These opposing views and their ability to co-exist present a complex social dilemma.

The Commodification of Life

The ability of large-scale industrial farms to commodify animals despite strong countervailing social forces stems largely from the legal system’s embrace of a secularized but nonetheless deeply religious vision of human ascendancy. Within this belief system, animals comprise beings to whom we define ourselves by contrast and to whom we deny ingress to the legal system. The impulse to increase protections for non-human animals is offset by institutionally privileged categories of behavior that commodify non-humans and strip them of legal defenses. The resulting structure of laws purports to safeguard animals while instead sanctioning and enabling the practices from which they require protection (Cassuto, 2007).

The Definition of Abuse

The social issue of animal abuse as it pertains to factory farming exists, but man dictates what is considered abuse and what is considered acceptable. This makes man both judge and abuser, which is a tremendous social strain. This ‘non-criminal putting to death’ (Derrida, 1991) of non-humans raises sociological questions around intersectionality, human relations with other species, and the embedding of violence in everyday practices and across national and global networks.

Religious Views of Life

When facing the exploitation and consumption of animals, humans have long hid behind cultural and religious biases. While most religions and cultures have exploited and consumed animals since time immemorial, Buddhists, Hindus and Jains have a different spiritual attitude toward (the treatment of) animals. Animals, for their inability to speak for or defend themselves and due to their lack of equal protection under the law, are considered property and are only regarded as equal by those who hold animals in a moral and ethical light (e.g., vegans and Buddhists). But because laws do not protect animals from being consumed, factory farming and hunting is legal.

Over the last few years, animal abuse has become punishable in all states in the US, although degrees of abuse and punishment vary state by state. Laws protecting animals from abuse have been enacted based on moral and ethical values, and on research which has shown a psychopathological explanatory model, that animal abuse is an indicator or symptom of some mental defect or personality disorder (Beirne, 1999).

Slaughter or Murder

Factory farmers believe they are feeding America, but they are part of a heinous industry of abuse that takes place before the animals are slaughtered. Factory farm animals, the most abused animals in the world, are deliberately tormented, beaten, stabbed, and burned by workers. There is absolute misery on factory farms, and when workers add to the misery by abusing innocent animals, there is a sociopathic element that should not be ignored.

Killing for Fun

Some employees report killing animals “for fun” without feeling any remorse, suggesting psychological damage to the extent of abnormal cruelty that would generate concern amongst the general population (Dillard, 2008). Many workers display high levels of somatization and anger hostility, while others become numb and begin to display signs of apathy, and others even begin to enjoy the infliction of pain (Helle 2012). Some become less empathetic under conditions of stress as well. In one of the interviews from Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry, an employee recalls, “You're under all this stress, all this pressure. And it really sounds mean, but I've taken prods and stuck them in their (hogs) eyes. And held them there” (Eisnitz, p. 53, 2009).

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The Accumulative Effect of Loss of Empathy: The Sinclair Effect

Lower empathy in slaughterhouse workers may be responsible for higher crime rates in neighborhoods where such facilities are located with some of the homicides carried out in a manner of animal slaughtering practices (Dillard, 2008). Amy Fitzgerald, a sociologist investigating the effects of slaughterhouses on communities, tested the “Sinclair Effect,” a theory Upton Sinclair proposed more than a hundred years ago noting that slaughterhouses had negative effects on workers and communities through increases in crime and unemployment rates. The majority of factory farm workers interviewed admit to abusing farm animals before they slaughter them. These correlations had not been empirically tested until Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates: An Empirical Analysis of the Spillover from “The Jungle” Into the Surrounding Community in 2010. The assessment looked at a total of 581 counties from 1994-2002 and found the “Sinclair Effect” to be unique to the violent workplace of the slaughterhouse. An example of crime rates in a Finney County, Kansas community where a slaughterhouse opened up, reports that after controlling for migratory and other important factors, the community experienced a 130% increase in violent crimes within five years with the population growth only being 33%. Increased crime rates such as these have been documented in other states as well. Property crimes, slaughter crimes, and child abuse all increased.

The sociological implications of factory farm abuse and other forms of animal abuse have been shown to be a harbinger of domestic abuse and abuse against other humans. In the same way a boy or man abuses an animal for perverse pleasure, retribution, or as a means of “acting out”, many males go on to abuse domestic partners, children and other humans. Committing animal cruelty is likely to distort or inhibit empathy, making it even easier to disregard the feelings and lives of other beings – animal and human (Ascione, 1993).

The Psychological Consequences of Killing

In Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing, the study by Rachel M. MacNair describes Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS) as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse, panic, depression, paranoia, dissociation, anxiety, and depression stemming from the act of killing. While this study focused on combat veterans and the like, MacNair also includes slaughterhouse workers as a sector of population susceptible to PITS (MacNair, 2002). One of the symptoms of PITS is having recurring dreams of violent acts and there are several reports of workers being taken to mental hospitals for treatment of severe cases (Dillard, 2008). Certain jobs like having the responsibility to be the first to kill the animal may have stronger effects on the worker than other jobs. Substance abuse like methamphetamine (Schlosser, 2002) and alcohol is very common amongst slaughter employees as a coping mechanism of the emotional toll (Dillard, 2008).

The Bigger Picture

The time has come for sociologists to acknowledge the significant and dangerous impact the “legal killing of animals” has on those given a license to kill. Beyond that, it is important that human treatment of animals be investigated not just for what it can teach us about human interaction, but because animals are moral beings whose lives have intrinsic worth, apart from our relationship to them.

In the case of those who live below the poverty line or in rural areas where there is limited access to non-animal-derived, healthy food, the products of factory farming seem to be their only option. The lack of education regarding healthy eating is not only the result of social inequality but also the work of the dairy/factory farm industry that wants to keep the ignorant, ignorant. Fresh and frozen produce, legumes and other protein-rich sustenance is available throughout the U.S., and healthy eating is no less affordable than fast food.

The status quo, based as it is on a specious and unsustainable divide between humans and other beings, is legally suspect and ethically bankrupt. It has allowed a fundamentally religious idea to govern access to the legal system and has enabled a brutal, amoral commercial enterprise to operate with little regulatory oversight. As the public is being made aware of the horrors of factory farming before slaughter, more people are turning to veganism, if not significantly decreasing their consumption of animal-derived and factory-farmed food. And lawmakers are being held to task as more horrific videos surface, with petitioners and other concerned citizens refusing to allow these unethical practices to continue.


Szűcs, E., Geers, R., Jezierski, T., Sossidou, E. N., & Broom, D. M. (2012). Animal welfare in different human cultures, Traditions and religious faiths .Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences, 25(11), 1499–1506.

Flynn, C. P. (2001). Acknowledging the "zoological connection": A sociological analysis of animal cruelty. Society & animals, 9(1), 71-87. doi:10.1163/156853001300109008

Cudworth, E. (2015). Killing animals: sociology, species relations and institutionalized violence. Sociological Review, 63(1), 1-18. doi:10.1111/1467-954X.12222

Cassuto, D. (2007) Bred meat: The Cultural foundation of the factory farm.

Dorovskikh, Anna, "Killing for a Living: Psychological and Physiological Effects of Alienation of Food Production on Slaughterhouse Workers" (2015). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 771.

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