A yummy veggieburger or a dreadful vegan burger?

For those who dig them, here’s another thought experiment (you know I love those).

Suppose you’re out and about with an omnivorous friend. He’s very hungry and he wants to humor you and try something veg. The only restaurant in the area has two things on offer: a delicious vegetarian burger (you know it contains a bit of egg or cheese) and a very dry and tasteless vegan burger. Which one do you recommend he order? (Or a bit more difficult: Which one would you buy for him?)

veggie vs vegan

In an ideal world, of course, there’s great tasting vegan burgers everywhere, but going along with this thought experiment may help you discover or make explicit something about your values. I’m sure we agree that the vegan burger is in theory the more ethical choice. But does it follow that it is necessarily the best choice?

The experiences omnivores have with vegan food will have a very big impact on their thinking about vegan and animal rights issues. Those who have had only Bad Tofu Experiences will likely be much less open to going vegan, while those who know the joys of vegan dishes may realize that once they quit their omnivorous diet, they will have great alternatives.

So in this context, of course, it does not seem to be a good idea to suggest a bad product to a person, even though it’s vegan. A yummy experience with the veggie burger (which will look pretty plant-based to your friend anyway) will do much more to open his mind.

I remember speaking at a (non-animal rights related) seminar that took place in a hotel. I had eaten there the night before and I knew the vegan food was quite bad. But after the talk I gave on the problems of eating meat, the organizers asked the audience who would want to switch to a vegetarian meal that night. Almost everybody raised their hand, and I thought: “Noooooo! Not here!”

Take away one: Helping people have great vegan taste experiences is absolutely crucial. If we can’t serve them good vegan food, it might actually be better to let them eat a hamburger.

Take away two: Don’t think just about short-term impact, but also about the long term.


The 12 habits of highly effective vegans

In my humble opinion, being a highly effective vegan is not first and foremost a matter of being vegan up to the last micro-ingredient. Rather, it is about communicating in a way that opens the most hearts and minds to more compassionate eating and living. Here is my list of twelve habits for highly effective vegans. carrot

1. Highly effective vegans can put themselves in the shoes of whomever they are talking to. They know that other people may be significantly different in many ways. They may have different interests and motivations, different ways to deal with changes and challenges. Therefore…

2. Highly effective vegans are adaptive. They can adapt the way they talk and what they talk about, according to their audience. They are not dogmatic in their approach. They know they are under no moral obligation to present veganism as a moral obligation.

3. Highly effective vegans encourage every step that people take. They know that change usually happens gradually. Therefore, highly effective vegans focus on the good things that people are already doing, rather than on the things they are not doing yet.

4. Highly effective vegans don’t care about purity. They know that both regarding themselves and others, focusing on purity is unproductive. They want to make being vegan look as accessible, easy and attractive as possible. They know that eating more compassionately is not an either or, black or white, now or never thing. They want to help people take the first step rather than the last.

5. Highly effective vegans don’t need to be “right.” Rather, they focus on what works. That’s why they are rarely debating or arguing. They know that in addition to providing arguments, they can also provide practical information, recipes, or a taste experience (i.e., they can cook for others).

6. Highly effective vegans know how to listen. They know that listening is essential to real communication. Highly effective vegans therefore also know to ask questions, and when to be quiet. They are friendly, and have a sense of humor. They know that the process of their conversations is often more important than the content.

7. Highly effective vegans do remember what it was like to be a non-vegan – they don’t suffer from vegan amnesia. They know that at some point they ate animal products and may even have been deaf themselves to the animal rights arguments, even when they were articulated clearly to them. Therefore, they are patient and understanding.

8. Highly effective vegans know that attitude change can come after behavior change. Therefore, they don’t mind when people start their vegan journey for health or for any reason.

9. Highly effective vegans are humble. They know they are not perfect. They know other people may do other great things, even if they are not vegan. And they know they don’t have all the answers.

10. Highly effective vegans have faith in people. They know most people want to do good, and don’t want animals to suffer. Highly effective vegans know that change is a matter of time. They realize that one important thing we have to do is to make it easier for people to act and eat compassionately, by providing more and better vegan options.

11. Highly effective vegans understand the crucial importance of good food. They applaud the development of new products, they learn how to cook, and they can inspire other people by telling them about how great they can eat as vegans.

12. Highly effective vegans don’t judge. They see veganism – like getting better at being human – as a journey rather than a destination, something that is never done, and can be started on many different roads.

If you want to know more about these ideas, check these video presentations.

Should we present eating vegan as a choice or a necessity?

The take away of my previous post, “on vegans and vegan meals“, was that it might be more efficient to tell people to eat vegan, try vegan meals or products, rather than to tell them to go vegan, be a vegan, adhere to veganism…

This message is controversial (or even “morally corrupt”, I kid you not) to some people, who insist that going vegan is the only ethical option, and that we should tell people so in as many words, always and everywhere. Here’s a comment one of my more respectful critics made:
“The problem with the above strategy is that it gives the impression that being vegan is a choice, not a necessity. (…) By the above post you are creating a situation, where non-vegans are quite happy for veganism to be a choice … the live & let live scenario … except the animals themselves do not have a say in this choice.”
Of course I agree that in principle not consuming animal products is the most just way to relate to animals, and the closest to a guarantee that they won’t suffer and be killed. But my agreeing with this idea does not necessarily mean that I have to tell people that they have to be vegan. I prefer telling people things that I think are effective, rather than “right”.
In my opinion, suggesting that people have to do something, is not very effective. think it’s much better to communicate to people that they have a choice, a choice for which there are much better arguments than for eating meat. This, I think, is much more productive than saying they have no choice, and that they should follow some moral imperative that we impose upon them (at least that will be their impression).

I already wrote about persuasion resistance
Do you like to be told what to do? Do you like to be told by someone that you have to be something or someone? Do you like it when people give you the impression you are not up to their standards if you don’t do as they do? Most people don’t like any of these things. By not telling people what to do, we may actually get more people to do it.
I thought the following applies to telling people what to do in general:

calming down

Another argument against presenting something as a necessity is that it sounds much less attractive. When you present something as a necessity, there’s a connotation of sacrifice (you have to do this and you can’t do that), and that is exactly what we want to avoid. It’s challenging to combine the ideas that something is wonderful and a moral imperative at the same time.
So, again, we can tell ourselves that, because veganism and animal suffering are matters of life and death, we have to tell others that they are morally obliged to go vegan. Or we can imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, and formulate or message in a way that appeals to them and actually makes them act on it. 

On vegans and vegan meals

In the post “Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan,” I wrote that some day “I might get so disappointed with vegans and veganism, that I (a vegan for the animals), would refrain from using the word vegan altogether.” That was in reaction to an article in which the author suggested “health” vegans shouldn’t call themselves vegan. In the meantime, the Bearded Vegan podcast had an episode on the question of if we should stop using the word vegan.

Now, I still think the word vegan is useful, particularly in the sense that it is a name for a concept. When you’re in a restaurant, or anywhere food is served to you, it is easy if you can just explain with one word what you want. The more people who know and understand the word, the easier it gets.

The word is less useful, more controversial, and more prone to cause discussions, disagreements and even nastiness, when it is applied to people. It is much harder for a person to be vegan than for a product or a dish to be vegan. When a product doesn’t have non-vegan ingredients, it’s vegan. You might say: when a person doesn’t eat non-vegan ingredients, they are vegan. But it’s not that simple (no, really). There’s apparently discussion about intentions, which have to be right too (otherwise you’re plant based, according to said article); there’s the matter of the tiny bits and micro-ingredients, there’s even ideological and political issues, etc.

adj noun

So here’s a subtle yet important note about grammar and how it relates to what I think is the most efficient use of the word vegan. I believe that in the case of the V-word, the nouns (“veganism,” “vegans”) are more problematic than the adjective (as in “a vegan meal”). The words “a vegan/vegans” and “veganism” are black and white or binary terms: you are it, or you’re not (even though there can be discussions about how pure you need to be to carry the label). You may have no interest in going vegan all the way, so the noun may not appeal to you. Also, if you are a vegetarian, or a part time vegan or whatever, you may feel excluded by the noun vegan. You don’t belong to that group, and “veganism” doesn’t apply to you. The nouns are very “exclusive,” they exclude you (if you’re not vegan).

This is completely different from the use of vegan as an adjective in the words “vegan meals” or “vegan products.” If you suggest that a person have a vegan meal or buy a vegan product, you are not asking them to “become a vegan.” Everybody can eat a vegan meal or buy a vegan product. You don’t need to be a vegan for that. It works much more inclusively, it includes non-vegans. Asking people to become a vegan is asking them, or is asking for what sounds like, a change of identity. As Nick Cooney writes: “The public may think of vegetarians as a distinct group of people who are different from normal (!) Americans. That’s not good. We don’t want people to think they need to take on a new identity to cut cruelty out of their diet. Why? Because most people are loath to change their sense of who they are.”

Bottom line, in our communication, let’s invite people to eat vegan, have vegan meals, try vegan products, rather than to become a vegan or adhere to veganism.


PS: apologies to blog subscribers, who got an unfinished draft of this post in their mailbox yesterday





Finding out what works

Do online videos of farmed animal cruelty change people’s diets and attitudes? Mercy For Animals, an organization that invests a lot in trying to make people watch online videos, recently contracted an independent research firm to investigate this question.

ACE (Animal Charity Evaluators), an organization that specializes in assessing which groups, campaigns, strategies etc are effective in making things better for animals, called the MFA study the “highest quality randomized controlled trial (RCT) so far of an animal advocacy intervention.”

Probably somewhat unexpectedly, the results of the research did not confirm that people who watched the video would eat less animal products than those who had seen an unrelated video instead (the control group).* This was, of course disappointing, especially since online videos are a relatively cheap, practical and measurable way of campaigning.

Mercy For Animals explains that there are several factors that make it difficult to draw any concrete and practical conclusions from the study: the study could only distinguish between increases or decreases in consumption of at least ten percent; the sample size may need to be a lot bigger; self-reports on dietary choices are very unreliable; the study only took into account people who clicked the ad, while apparently the majority of impact comes from people merely seeing the ad.

picture (c) Compassationate Action for Animals

The bottom line is that MFA feels the results can’t provide any practical guidance and hence will not cause MFA to reallocate funding for their online advertising.

Now my point, in this post, is not at all to tell you that having people watch these videos is of no use. I don’t think we can say that yet. My point is on a meta-level, about the mere researching itself. Here are some things that are great about what’s happened here:

  • an organization (MFA in this case) really wants to know if its allocation of resources (money for the Facebook ads etc) is efficient
  • donors are giving money to carry out that research
  • MFA contracted an independent firm to help guarantee a professional study design and execution
  • the research results, including raw data, have been shared with other groups like ACE, and results can be used by our whole movement
  • lessons on doing research have been learned, and new research questions have arisen.

But mostly, and this is the point of my post, MFA was not afraid to publish results that did not confirm the strategies they have been heavily investing in.

This may sound very obvious: we want to help the animals, right? So we do something and check if it works, right? And if it doesn’t seem to work, we stop doing it, right?

I hope you can see that in our movement, actually this kind of attitude is not so obvious at all. Not everyone of us is results-driven, and some of us are more interested in being truthful to an ideology or long followed strategy. Most groups don’t spend all that much on research and assessing what works. Many of us will cherry pick, using and publishing and talking about only the research that suits us. Confirmation bias may lead us to too quickly accept results that confirm our investments, and too quickly reject those that contradict them. While MFA and other organizations investing in online videos should obviously not disregard the results of their own study too quickly (which feel they won’t do), I have already seen other voices doing the opposite: they believe this research confirms that online videos don’t work.

We are all, to some degree, invested in our attitudes, our organization, our groups, our ideologies, our rules, our lifestyle, our identity. Confrontation with things that contradict whatever we are invested in, may be uncomfortable. But we should be willing to feel uncomfortable at times if we really want to help animals.

I have quoted this Tolstoy quote before, but I want to use it again here:

“I know that most people, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they had proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their lives.” 


* actually, if anything, the results showed that people having watched the videos ate slighly more animal products than the control group. It seems very unlikely that this result was significant, which is why here it is in a footnote 🙂