Shock Value: Cannibal Edition


As media companies rely more and more on online-advertising that pays per eyeball an article has on it, the natural way to attract those precious clicks and views to your articles are shocking, attention-grabbing headlines to drive traffic to it. When the title of a seminar is so juicy that the articles write themselves and you can angle it to exactly however you want it to sound, but nobody takes a moment to dig in a little bit, you hit the clickbait-jackpot. I happen to have a shovel though.

Swedish Scientist proposes Cannibalism to fight climate change” – That is one sexy headline right there. But is it true? Well, arguably no. Unless you really want it to.

The Gastro Summit is a convention where the focus is on innovation and sustainability in the food business held in Stockholm with lectures, showcases, and seminars revolving around the topic of the summit. Magnus Söderlund, the consumer behavior researcher that made the headlines, had two talks at the summit: The effect ecological labeling has on consumers and, the more famous, about the idea of eating human flesh.

During the talk, Mr. Söderlund held a survey to poll the participating audience on their thoughts on 5 different meat options, and the options for the survey were: Beef meat, vegetarian meat-substitute, ants, cats, and human

8% of the seminar goers answered that they could imagine eating human meat (which was more than those positive to eating cats, according to Mr. Söderlund in a Swedish radio interview). I guess the seminar-headline was picked out specifically to attract more interest and a higher turnout of listeners, just like a clickbait headline would, but the talk was going through several alternative options to the traditional protein-consumption found in the west.

Magnus Söderlunds area of expertise is finding out the ins and outs of why people buy (or don’t buy) certain things by looking at all the factors going into purchases, and he has written 8 books on the subject and conducted a lot of tests on consumer satisfaction and attitudes toward occurrences in the market: One of my favorites of those being the effect smiling servers/bartenders have on sales (which I’ve emailed to my boss actually!).

With all this in our back pocket, are Magnus Söderlund actually suggesting that we use cannibalism practices for a more sustainable future? No, he is more interested in the attitudes towards cannibalism and likes to leave all stones turned before settling down on any final conclusions of his research. In a Swedish Channel 4 interview, he talks about the importance of understanding taboos, for example, the disgust towards insect-protein here in the West (and claim around 2 billion people on the planet eat it in some form or the other, but is almost non-existent in the West) and said that he doesn’t believe that we will eat human flesh in the future, stating it as very unlikely on attitudes alone.

Which is quite a different message than the headlines plastered all over the Internet and many authors of these articles strawman the talk Magnus Söderlund was doing into something it is not. Take this headline for example: “Swedish Researcher Pushes Eating Human Flesh as Answer to Future Climate Change Food Shortages“. Asking a survey-question isn’t pushing something. If that was the case he also pushed cat-meat and ant-meat too. I guess the already long headline would crack under its own weight then?

I don’t know the political leaning of Magnus Söderlund, but the comment sections all over the place try to nail him down as a “Leftist” based on misleading headlines. If there is anyone pushing anything, it is the word-merchants that want to sell ads at all costs by luring in people with Shock Value.

Peace and Profit, friends.


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  1. This essay, like the others you post, seems to be reasonable and well-balanced, so I can say that I have no reason to believe anything else. Until I find evidence to the contrary, I will take your word for it. However I read both the articles you linked to and still don’t know exactly what happened at the seminar. I don’t speak Swedish, so I dispensed with the interview. It doesn’t matter, though, since I find that things like this are usually blown out of proportion and can be taken with a grain of salt.

    The question I have is why would anyone believe that we are going to be reduced to eating human flesh anyway? Are there things I’m missing which show that food is going to be in short supply in the future? Is this just another variation and extension of the Malthusian theory? Or is the researcher simply discussing taboo topics as an exercise? If so, what does he hope to gain by it?

    For what it’s worth, I will wait until I am absolutely starving to the point of death before I seriously consider going down that road. On the other hand, if they are already dead, it wouldn’t make any difference to them. And, to be fair, if I am already dead, then someone else could eat my flesh and I wouldn’t feel it a bit.

    BTW, I have a friend named Carl who I haven’t seen in a while. Perhaps I should call him.


    • Yeah, I try to shy away from Swedish sources that are audio-only, sadly this time around they were the only place where I heard what he said himself and didn’t just get a retelling of what he supposedly said. I wish they were on a platform that made subtitles available (like youtube does) so its easier for non-swedes to confirm what I’m writing. It’s harder with Swedish even in those cases because *how* you say something and where you put emphasis on words counts for a lot when you communicate in the darn language =)

      >However I read both the articles you linked to and still don’t know exactly what happened at the seminar.

      This is something I could have been better at explaining: He held a talk about alternatives to meat for the future and gave examples of different practices around the world, like how many cats they eat in China and India, how popular insect meat is in Africa and tropical south-east Asia, the vegetarian meat-alternatives that is super-popular in Sweden (and increasingly considered just as normal as regular meat, I have a vegan sister and she and her social circle use meat-substitutes) and, of course, the question of how human meat consumption could be implemented in the future (he was talking about it in parallel to organ donation: Something you could opt in to do if you wanted to). After the presentation he surveyed the audience to measure their attitudes and thinking towards the different meat alternatives – It turns out the crowd was more skeptical about eating cats than humans haha.

      >The question I have is why would anyone believe that we are going to be reduced to eating human flesh anyway?

      Bingo! But that wasn’t what Magnus was interested in, he wanted to see the attitude towards it. He said in one of the interviews that “We can learn a lot about taboos and what people consider gross, which will be helpful in other areas” – paraphrasing by me. Magnus appeared a little frustrated with the interviewers in another interview that I didn’t link because the interviewers insisted on him wanting people to start being cannibals when he is only interested in the “why” behind the taboo (something both interviewers refused to understand haha).

      >And, to be fair, if I am already dead, then someone else could eat my flesh and I wouldn’t feel it a bit.

      When Magnus got asked the question if he would be interested in donating his corpse to meat consumption he answered a straight “no”. 🙂

      Have a great Monday Roger!

      Liked by 1 person

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