Vegans or not, we all turn away from suffering at times

Vegans often talk about how non-vegans shut themselves off from animal suffering. Those non-vegans know – it is assumed – certain facts about animals, but choose to block them out. When they have a chance to find something out about animal suffering (like watching a YouTube video), they often won’t take the opportunity because they’re afraid they won’t like what they see.

I think all of this is often wrongly interpreted as indifference. It is exactly because most people are not indifferent to suffering that they will try to turn away and try not to feel what’s going on. When they don’t want to know, they are, of course, also choosing for their own convenience: they want to avoid having to change and losing their piece of meat. But the fact that they believe they should change something, and therefore avoid the confrontation, indicates, in itself, that they care, on some level.

This avoidance and turning away is a pity, of course, but maybe rather than being too judgmental about this behavior, it might be good to realize that all of us do it, all the time, to some extent. Whether we are vegan or non-vegan, at some point we all need to say no, close our ears and our eyes and even our hearts. Otherwise, life is, unfortunately, not livable.

Let me illustrate this with a situation from my own life. Next to her job in a veg organization, my girlfriend rescues cats. We have six rescued cats and two dogs living permanently in our home, but apart from these animals, there’s always a variable amount of cats “in transition”, waiting for another home. They were picked up from the street, abandoned by their “owners”, or whatnot.

Whenever my girlfriend gets notified about animals in need – they might be sick, blind, full of fleas or other parasites, etc. – she tries to find a solution. She’ll be on Facebook and email to find temporary housing for the animal, so that he or she can heal, be sterilized and vaccinated, before a forever home is found.

There seem to be, however, always more animals in need than people to care for them. So open goes our own door, and yet another animal comes in. Yes, there may be room for one more. And one more. And one more. But at some point, there’s a limit. At some point, we have to say no. And even if my girlfriend manages to find some kind of a solution most of the time, we know that there are cats out there who are suffering and need care. It doesn’t stop at cats, by the way. She gets calls about all kinds of animals.

Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.
Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.

Because of course, there are many more animals out there, other than cats, that we could help. Many animal advocates get bombarded with notifications and pleas and pictures and petitions about animals who need our attention or our donation. And it never stops.

Obviously we can go beyond animals: there’s a refugee crisis in Europe and most people reading this probably have the opportunity to create some room in their homes to temporarily house one or more refugees. But hardly anyone (including me) does that. Likewise, we all could give more money to help these people, or to other causes that we deem worthy and effective, but there’s always a limit we set to our donations (and for most people it’s a rather low one).

Of course, saying that there is always a limit, and that all of us turn away or close our hearts at some point, doesn’t mean we need to do nothing. I agree that some things require less personal effort than others. Going vegan is, at least after awhile, probably easier than giving away significant donations every year (though we can ask the question about whether it is as effective). But the thing is, we can always find people who are doing more than others: people who are more vegan, who rescue and feed more animals, who donate more.

In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.

But of course, reasoning like this, and experiencing the world like this, is no way to live. It is a recipe for burnout and depression. There will be huge and extreme suffering for quite some time on this planet (I’m an optimist, I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be here forever), so those of us who are really sensitive to it, need to find a way to deal with it.

So maybe some takeaways from these rambling thoughts:

  • rather than labeling others as indifferent, we can remember that turning away is a matter of degree and that we all do it
  • we can set an example for others to follow, and help “normalize” doing good
  • as the suffering is endless right now and our resources are insufficient, it’s important to do good effectively. If you are not yet, familiarize yourself with the philosophy of Effective Altruism.
  • be sustainable in your activism. Know that you cannot avoid turning away now and then. Paradoxically, you are probably a better friend to the animals by not witnessing and worrying about their suffering all of the time.

 

 

Facebook communication: fight, flight, or light?

[This article is based on the presentation I gave on Facebook communication at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. You can watch the presentation here.]

Communication is difficult. We learned to speak a couple of languages, we maybe learned some public speaking. But most of us never learned to really emphatically and effectively communicate with others.

Online communication is even more difficult. There are screens between you and me. When we communicate on social media, we only have our words and our smileys to convey our actual feelings and attitudes – and not the body language that we can use in real life. So yes, it’s hard.

A discussion on Facebook can be a friendly exchange of thoughts. It can also be a little bit more aggressive, but still a “sportive” boxing match. Or it can be a downright mean and nasty shouting match. That is the dark side. It is very easy to get to the dark side on Facebook, and very damaging. When a discussion turns nasty, nobody wins: not us, not the other people participating in or reading the discussion, and not the animals.

When we see a conversation turn nasty – or when we think a conversation might turn nasty (given the subject or our own sensitivity about the subject), we have three options:

facebook light flight fight

Choosing Fight means going into the discussion head on, not caring much about civility or friendliness. It means letting your feelings (anger, aggression, irritation) speak the way you feel them. It usually doesn’t result in anything good.

Choosing Flight is ignoring the comment or the entire discussion. You just leave, maybe because you think it’s useless, or because you want to avoid nastiness.

Choosing Light means retaining your self-control, and – in spite of potential nastiness from the other side – remaining friendly, empathic, and rational. It’s often very hard to do.

My suggestions are:

  1. stay in the light as much as you can (unless it’s a time-waster)
  2. if you can’t, choose flight
  3. but don’t fight

Here are ten things you can do (you don’t have any control over what others do) to help keep the conversation on the light side, and not trigger others:

  1. be aware that how you say it trumps what you say
  2. be nice
  3. have a sense of humor, no matter how serious the topic is
  4. listen
  5. be open-minded
  6. use phrases like “in my opinion,” “I believe,” “I think,” rather than sounding like you’re stating everything as facts
  7. think about the other people as human beings with actual needs
  8. take your time to reply. Facebook allows for this.
  9. avoid judging, shaming and guilt tripping
  10. avoid sarcasm. it’s fun, but it doesn’t help

When a conversation turns sour, that may be (partly) because of you, but there are also situations where even when we try to stay in the light with all our might, other people will continue to behave downright nasty (yes, it does happen). In that case, don’t forget your options to unfriend, unsubscribe, unfollow, and if all else fails, just block the person so they stop existing for you.

Here is the full presentation

 

 

 

 

Vegans: you can’t do this alone

We need to work in unison with other forces that can bring us closer to a vegan world.

[This post is a summary of the presentation “Why the world is vegan”, which I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. You can watch the full presentation here.]

It used to be that the main force driving the world towards a (more) vegan world was us: the animal rights/vegan movement. We’ve been around for a couple of decades, we’ve been committed, caring and compassionate, and we’re still here, fighting this good fight.

But today there are allies. At least, they are allies if we let them be allies. If we form alliances with them. And we should.

Now when I say we need to form alliances with other sectors, movements, forces, domains… many people will say “Yes! Yes!”, thinking about alliances with movements that try to lift the oppression of other groups: black, women or gay liberation movements for instance.

I support these alliances, of course, but I’m talking about maybe less obvious kind of partnerships. Here I’m focusing on alliances with 1. the health/environmental movement and 2. the business sector. 

I feel I have to point out the value of getting in bed, so to speak, with at least part of the health/environmental and corporate world, because I see a lot of black and white thinking about them, as if these forces could never ever be our partners. As if we could do it without them. I don’t think we can. Or at least, not as fast.

While the vegan movement helps to spread the idea (the fact) that eating animals is ethically problematic, the health/environmental movement contributes to the idea that that animal products are unsustainable (for both health and our planet). The business sector, in turn, helps make the production of animal products redundant. Here’s the picture:

We need to work in unison with other forces that can bring us closer to a vegan world.

Of course there are big differences, different interests, different demands (the ask) and different arguments (reasons for avoiding animal products). A simple overview:

allies-matrix
Even though they use different arguments and have different demands, other forces may lead us in the same direction.

Regarding the health/environmental movement, they are an ally even if they (at best) go for a “less animal products” message rather than our own “no animal products”, and even if the animal argument is entirely left out of the picture. I have explained before (in this presentation, for instance) why a reducetarian message, for whatever reason, is a necessary strategy to lead us to a vegan world. Briefly: the more reducers, the bigger the demand, the bigger the offer. The bigger the offer, the easier it becomes for everyone to be entirely vegan.

Regarding the domain of business, here we’re talking about an incredible financial injection into our cause. In the last few years, a handful of companies that produce or want to produce alternatives for animal products, have raised (on a quick count) about 350 million dollars. I don’t know the total yearly budget of our movement, but it might be less than that. These companies make or will make products that will facilitate people’s shifting away from meat, dairy and eggs.

Yes, it’s capitalism. But it might very well be the best capitalism has to offer, and we shouldn’t say no to it (just like we shouldn’t say no to more money). You can be anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, anti-corporate all you want, but I would suggest you direct your protests at the producers of entirely useless things, and not at the companies that are our allies.

In order to form the best alliances with these different sectors, we need to be open to the fact that they will not spread the exact message that we want. We need to be open minded and non-dogmatic. And we need to be credible for them to want to partner up with us.

The world can be a much better place for animals. But not – or not so fast – if we go at it alone. We need to form strategic partnerships and alliances with all the domains, institutions, businesses etc. that can help us move forward.

This post is a summary of the presentation “Why the world is vegan”, which I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. Here is the presentation.

 

Learning, discussing, and recharging at the International Animal Rights Conference

I just got back from Luxembourg (it’s a three hour car trip for me) where I participated in and spoke at the International Animal Rights conference (IARC). I’ll write about what I talked about in other posts, but here I just wanted to give you an idea of what the conference was like.

In general, it’s always wonderful – even for just a few days – to be immersed in a bubble of likeminded people, enjoy vegan food, learn a lot of new things during the talks, or discuss strategies and tactics with other activists. I would recommend that every activist go and recharge their batteries at such a conference every once in a while.

I was impressed with so many of the participants I met. Seeing people, often still in school, spending a weekend to learn about new ways to save animals never fails to move me. I’m touched by their caring and their commitment. I’m touched by the idea that they are everywhere, in every part of the world. I’m touched by how they get inspired, and are inspiring others to change things.

All the people I talked to were both rational and compassionate. They clearly focused on getting the best results for animals, and weren’t afraid to discuss difficult topics. Year after year, it seems to me that this movement, and the people in it, are becoming more thoughtful, more strategic, more impactful.

A group photo of the participants of the IARC 2016
A group photo of the participants of the IARC 2016

Even though more and more speakers at this conference focus on effectiveness, pragmatism and results, one thing the IARC always delivers is a variety of viewpoints. Other speakers represented views and domains as varied as civil disobedience, ecofeminism, intersectionality, meta-strategies, spirituality, and others. Speakers came from all over, and reported on campaigns in their countries.  There were talks about psychology, reaching children, sanctuaries, clean meat, economy, and more. This variety of viewpoints is a good way to help guard us from losing track of potentially important approaches or neglected issues.

The most challenging and – to many – new topic, I think, was the one of wild animal suffering, which was addressed in the talks of Stijn Bruers and Stefan Torges (I wrote this post about it before). The topic was heavily discussed during the breaks, and its most vocal proponent was probably long time Austrian activist Martin Balluch, who is of the opinion that freedom and autonomy are more important values than the absence of suffering. It led to interesting debates between him and proponents of interference in nature. It was inspiring  to see how – even if probably few minds were changed – these debates were civil and friendly, as this whole conference was.

The practical organization was great. My heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who made this possible: organizers, volunteers (preparing food, doing dishes, introducing speakers and so on), speakers, participants, sponsors, and canine friends present.

Now it’s back to the real world, until we meet again next year!

 

 

 

 

Setting an example for others: how ambitious should we be?

Recently, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris did an interview on his Waking Up podcast (my favorite online thing to follow) with William MacAskill, the founder and face of the Effective Altruism movement. The whole two hour dialogue is worth listening to, but at one point, Harris asks MacAskill how much of our income we should give to charity. MacAskill gives his answer, after which Harris asks (without judgment, he says) why he shouldn’t give away even more.

MacAskill’s answer is interesting: what is important, he says, is not just the impact of what  you do yourself, but also to what extent your behavior inspires others to do the same. If you convince one other person to give away ten percent of their income, you have doubled your impact. So, we should consider, in this case, setting an example that is doable for others to imitate. If you manage to give away 95% of your income, but if that leaves others uninspired because it is way too ambitious to ever serve as an example for them, that may not be the best outcome you can have.

attainable example

Of course, this got me thinking about vegan advocacy. One might say that, given the fact that the number of vegans has not really been growing spectacularly (we’re still at one percent), the example vegans set for others could be too ambitious. It is a fact that even staying vegan is hard, given that 75% of vegetarians and vegans fall off the wagon at some point (and no, that’s not just the health vegans).

Of course, this goes against vegan orthodoxy, and some people won’t like to hear this. They will claim that we should only show to others the behaviors we would like them to adopt themselves.  According to this view, we can only, as Gandhi said, be the change we want to see in the world. It’s the default way of looking at things, and I’m sure there’s a lot of validity to it.

But the thing is, of course, that moving towards veganism from a vegetarian position is a lot easier than going from omnivore to vegan. The fear that people will stop at taking the steps we ask them to take, and then do nothing after that is, I think, ungrounded. A much bigger concern is that people won’t take any step because the whole thing seems too daunting.

However, even if I knew that being a vegetarian was more effective in terms of being an example for others, I don’t think I could bring myself to go back to being more flexible and eat eggs and dairy products on a regular basis. But it does mean that I’m not going to overemphasize to others the small bits (the honey, the little bit of whey in this or that), and that I will do my best to set an attainable example.

Of course – and this wasn’t discussed in the above mentioned podcast – one could do one thing and show people another thing. If you feel that certain behaviors are too hard to be inspiring, maybe it’s good to come across as less strict than you really are. Maybe some vegan or near vegan celebrities have this idea in mind when in the media they say they make an exception now and then. This is something that they would be criticized for by many vegans, but which might actually be a good thing. Who knows?

In any case, the idea of setting an attainable example means that I’m not gonna fret that some people are not vegan but vegetarian, or close to vegetarian. I’m certainly not going to tell vegetarians that they aren’t making any difference (as some others may do). I think there’s a distinct possibility that in certain (or even many) cases, they may –  at this moment in time – actually have more impact on others than the average vegan.

Blasphemy, I know.

 

 

 

Angry-ism

angryism (1)
Vegans, let’s talk about our anger. 

Most of us vegans are pretty angry and upset at what’s happening to animals, and we have good reasons to be. We have reason to be angry at the indifference that most people display towards the billions of creatures that suffer at human hands. We especially have reason to be angry because we believe that most people by now should know better.

You might say about anger that it’s a positive, constructive, mobilizing emotion, an emotion that can get people to take to the streets, organize protests and dissent, and consequently, Change.

I’m agnostic about whether feeling angry is a good or a bad thing, or an essential part of a social movement, though my sense is that it’s definitely bad for a person to feel angry all the time. But what I want to talk most about here is expressing or showing this anger. Because, even if anger can help us get going and get organized, I believe acting in an angry way towards people, showing our anger, is probably not a good thing in most cases.

So when I feel anger myself (and I do sometimes), I try to transform it into something productive. And I try not to come across as angry. I try to not blame and criticize and guilt-trip people. I basically try – I don’t always succeed – to be nice to everyone, even if I think they are participating in or doing things that are, at bottom, pretty horrible. What helps me is realizing that, even though I may boycott animal products myself, I am not without sin. And therefore I feel wary of casting stones and being angry at others’ behavior.

Yet around me, I do see so much anger being expressed, in the vegan and in other social justice movements. It is very visible anger, and I think it is anger that alienates, anger that closes hearts rather than opening them.

And I see vegans not just being angry at non-vegans, but also at fellow vegans and animal advocates. Maybe those vegans are angry because they believe other vegans are not angry enough. In the eyes of the angry vegans, the nice vegans are pussy-footing their way around the sensitivities of those who eat animal products. The angry vegans would rather, from a place of passion and emotion, serve meat-eaters the truth, straight up. And they get impatient with advocates who don’t, and who suggest that we are a bit more considerate with omnivores, not just out of compassion, but also because of effectiveness.

I also see many vegans being angry with fellow advocates because they’re not heeding all the issues that they themselves find so important. Some angry vegans will not stop being outraged at how other advocates’ communication is, in their eyes, sexist, racist, classist, ableist, consumerist, or even speciesist. The angry vegans think that the others don’t get the interconnectedness, don’t get how all things are related, and are sacrificing one social justice cause for another. Maybe the angry vegans think their fellow vegans are not abolitionist, not intersectionalist, not anti-system enough. And maybe they’re right; most if not all of us still have blind spots (oops, an ableist term) for some or many of the issues that are important.

But here’s the thing, if we want to, we will always be able to find reasons to be angry. We can become addicted to outrage. I suggest that in the case of people who seem to be constantly finding reasons to be angry, their anger has more to do with themselves than with the righteousness of the cause they are fighting for. It’s probably not a very good idea to use advocacy as an outlet for your anger. Then, veganism, or feminism, or any other social justice movement just becomes… angry-ism.

angryism (1)

For myself, I know that anger doesn’t give me peace of mind. I’m not really enjoying myself or my day when I’m angry. I also don’t feel I’m getting better results when I’m angry. And I know that when I see an angry person or meet them online, I will do my best to avoid them, make a detour not to bump into them (or even block them online). I don’t find them entertaining, I don’t find them credible, and I don’t listen to them more than I listen to a person who manages to be nice and calm (and who could be equally passionate about their cause).

By speaking out against expressing anger all the time, I am by no means advocating that we just be silent, sitting in our room, careful not to step on anyone’s toes. I suggest we be out there, making a difference in the things that matter to us and to others. But we can do that, I think, with less anger, and more understanding. We can choose to trust people. Trust that they will see what is the most compassionate thing to do, some day – maybe not right away. We can see others as potential allies rather than opponents, or even traitors.

Whether we like it or not, we’re all in the business of selling something – our message of compassion – and I don’t think a car salesperson ever sold a car being angry at their customers.

Maybe there will come a time when massively showing our anger will be a productive thing to do. That will be when there are enough of us to make a difference that way. That time is, I think, not yet here. Right now is the time to turn our anger into a productive way of interacting with others, so that, rather than making them turn away even more,  we can open their hearts and minds.

The meat motivated mind: an interview with Dr. Jared Piazza

meat movivated mind
jared
Dr. Jared Piazza

Dr. Jared Piazza is a lecturer at Lancaster University, UK. His research focuses on moral decision making, including how people think about the moral value of animals. Recently, Jared and his colleagues published the papers Rationalizing meat consumption: The 4Ns, in the journal, Appetite, and When meat gets personal, animals’ minds matter less in Social Psychological and Personality Science. I heard Jared speak at the Care Conference in Warsaw in July (2016) and afterwards had an interview with him. We talked about obstacles to animal advocacy. This post is a bit longer than my usual ones, but I’m sure it will be worth your time.

Vegan Strategist: Jared, why are there so few vegans in the world? We’re still at a mere one percent.
Jared Piazza: There are different possible answers to that question. Is it because people don’t care about animals? I don’t believe that. Americans, for instance, spent over sixty billion dollars on their companion animals in 2015. I don’t believe that they care only about dogs and cats, and not also about farm animals. Is it because people don’t know what’s happening to farmed animals, and that all we need to do is educate them about the facts? I don’t think that’s the answer either. The movement has been raising awareness about the issues for decades.

So the real answer is…?
The best answer I can give is that people really love meat, and they want to keep eating it. This makes them less receptive to moral arguments about farm animals. If you can address the motivation to consume meat, then people may be more receptive to animal advocacy messages and behavior change. Appetite is something that develops very early in life, and that remains quite fixed after that. Many people are neophobic (afraid of new things) when it comes to food. So it’s not easy to change appetite. The upside of this seems to be that once people do make the switch, many of them can lose the previous appetite rather quickly and permanently. This is particularly true of people who adopt ethical reasons for abstaining from meat. If you’ve been vegan for a long time and have trouble understanding the alluring power of meat, I can recommend the book Meathooked, by Marta Zaraska.meat movivated mind

You did research into two particular obstacles to animal advocacy: moral reactance and motivated reasoning. Please tell us more.
Moral reactance boils down to people not wanting to be criticized or told that what they are doing is unethical. Simply raising the issue of vegetarianism – or even just refraining from meat while dining at a table of meat eaters – can elicit this kind of reactance, as people may feel there’s an implicit moral reproach in what you’re saying or (not) doing.
people recruit reasons and thoughts 2Motivated reasoning is about post hoc justifications. Rather than being open to the full range of evidence, most people want the conclusion of their thinking to be that they don’t need to make a change. So they recruit reasons and thoughts that justify their preferred conclusion, reasons and thoughts that don’t require a change. When you are in a “motivated state” you are motivated in a certain direction. You are personally involved, and you will steer your reasoning so that it can justify your preferences – preferences which are shaped by your habits and appetites. By contrast, if you first create a context in which there is no external pressure to change, people may be more open to critically consider the full range of perspectives (e.g., consider that eating meat is unnessary.).

That’s not really great news for those of us who believe in the power of rational thinking…
Motivated reasoning is certainly not rational or objective reasoning. And it has some consequences that can be problematic. People will modify their views of animals so that these beliefs are consistent with their appetite for meat. This is called belief alignment. Research has shown that if you remind people that they eat animals, people will think less of animals (in terms of their mental capacities) than when they are not reminded of that fact. People will also reduce their moral concern for animals when they think of animals as food.

And then there is wilful ignorance, which you tested with an interesting thought experiment.
Yes, wilful ignorance is about the fact that, when people are in a motivated state, they may avoid or discount “annoying” information that otherwise would be relevant. In one study, Steve Loughnan and I gave people a scenario where, at some point in the future scientists discover a new animal species (the ‘trablans’) on another planet. When we presented the trablans as intelligent, people were more concerned about the animal than when we presented it as not so smart. We saw that there was a clear correlation between the perceived intelligence of the trablans, and people’s moral concerns for it. But then we did a second study in which we also put pigs and tapirs in play, telling people that these were intelligent animals too. What we saw was that in the case of pigs, which – unlike the tapir and the trablans – people eat, the intelligence of pigs had much less effect on people’s moral concerns for them. In other words, the fact of the pigs’ intelligence was strategically ignored.

How Jared and his colleagues picture the imaginary "trablans".
How Jared and his colleagues picture the imaginary “trablans”.

What can we do about all these obstacles, as advocates for animals?
One thing that we can try is to avoid motivated reasoning. This is about getting to people before they need to defend their choices, that is, before they are in a motivated, defensive state to produce post hoc rationalizations. This might be achieved by getting people to think that they are already making steps toward meat reduction – by pointing out all of the tasty non-meat foods they already eat and enjoy. Indeed, this is how I moved from being an omnivore to a health vegetarian to a vegan. I first started reducing my meat consumption because my mom scared me about the carcinogenic properties of meat, so I started reducing my meat intake. Over time not eating meat became part of my identity, which made me more receptive to information about factory farming and animal liberation. Another strategy might be to create ‘safe’ environments where people can question their own reasons for eating meat, rather than having members of the moral vanguard tell them why eating meat is wrong. This may be easier said than done, but psychology may offer some helpful tips.

One clear finding from the psychological literature on persuasion is that people don’t like to think they are being persuaded (see persuasion resistance – VS), so don’t try to openly persuade them. Don’t say “I’m in this group and you’re not but you should be”. If as an omnivore, I’m afraid that you’re going to citicize me and I’m afraid you don’t want to compromise, then why would I engage with you if I know there’s only one direction this is going to go in? Maybe we should experiment more with giving people the opportunity to persuade themselves. In my lab we have found that if you have omnivores write a counter-attitudinal argument – for example, have them try to convince a friend why it is not necessary to eapersuadedt meat – rather than a pro-attitudinal argument (e.g., why it’s necessary), people are more receptive to compassionate messages about farm animals and are more willing to consider vegetarian meals. The idea here is that people can be convinced by their own arguments, more so than compelled by outside influences, even when these arguments go against how they originally think. So as animal advocates we might consider more ways to get people involved in the process of animal advocacy, thinking critically about animals and meat, rather than guilting people about eating meat.

Maybe us vegans could present ourselves as even worse omnivores to meat-eaters, and let them take the opposite role?
An interesting idea!

If rational arguments can only take us so far, what about emotional messaging?
I think positive emotions can be particularly useful. One thing that comes to mind is the motivational power of seeing a baby animal. Baby animals are cute. All mammals share a “baby schema”: the physical properties of young animals (big eyes, round face, small nose) that can evoke nurturing, caring emotions and behavior.

Baby-cows-are-precious.
Pictures of baby animals may evoke a certain tenderness in people.

One study showed pictures of kittens and puppies to participants (or adult cats and dogs) and then had them play the game of “Operation” (a game that requires careful, fine-motor movements, as you try to remove body parts with a stable hand so as not to get ‘buzzed’). Participants shown baby animals performed better at the game, suggesting they were being more “careful.” Also, when their grip was measured with a grip strength instrument, it was apparently less hard. This made me wonder if being exposed to baby farm animals invokes more tenderness, a feeling that may be at odds with an appetite for meat. Certainly animal advocacy groups implicitly think this is the case: many ads and leaflets I’ve seen are replete with photos of baby farm animals. We conducted a few studies to test this idea and found mixed evidence for it (we’re currently writing up the results). Exposure to images of cute farm animals does seem to evoke tenderness and reduce appetite for meat, but mostly among women, and when directly linking the animal to the meat. The effect was quite small but consistent, so tenderness seems to be a useful emotion for animal advocates to target, at least among women.

What about invoking negative emotions?
I think trying to evoke physical disgust about meat (for instance saying that it could carry e. coli, is rotten or whatever) might be effective. I wouldn’t recommend evoking disgust toward the killing of animals however. Disgust at cruelty is not a transformative emotion: the reaction of disgust is to repel or get away from the disgusting object (be it blood, guts, or whatever). I think anger is a more transformative emotion under these circumstances because it involves appraisals of injustice, and an impulse to right a wrong. But you have to be careful with anger too, because there’s a fine line between anger and guilt. You need to put the responsibility squarely on the producers, not with the consumers. If people feel responsible for the injustice, the impulse will largely be to pass the blame, rather than seek justice.

Can guilt ever work? Many vegans say they were convinced by other vegans giving them the truth straight up. What do you think?
Perhaps sometimes. But I think guilting generally fails because the person being guilted disagrees with the charges that they are doing anything wrong, and there are too many justifications easily on hand to dismiss the charges as valid.

You also did research on Melanie Joy’s three N’s of justification: eating meat is necessary, natural, and normal.
Yes, my colleagues Steve Loughnan, Matt Ruby, and I were interested to find out if Joy’s three Ns – that eating meat is necessary, natural, and normal -were the main justifications people gave when defending their right to eat animals. All three of us had read Melanie’s wonderful book, and wanted to put her theory to the test. So we recruited omnivores, a group of U.S. adults recruited online and a separate group of undergraduate students recruited at the University of Pennsylvania. We simply asked them “Why is it OK to eat meat?” and we categorised their responses. To our delight, we found evidence that people actually offered the three Ns that Melanie had written about. They also offered a fourth N – eating meat is nice (i.e., pleasurable, tasty, etc.). This is an odd argument to defend one’s right to do something harmful, but people offered it quite frequently nonetheless. Thus, we arrived at the “4Ns” of meat eating justification. Necessary was the most widespread N, but Natural and Nice had the highest level of endorsement, suggesting to us that they may be the least malleable of the four.

What are some of the other things that you think are worth looking into, researchwise?
I really think we don’t know a lot about why some people do end up as vegetarians or vegans. We know more about the obstacles people face toward meat abstention than how some people find their way to vegetarianism and veganism. What psychological characteristics or strategies enable such lifestyle commitments? Could anyone “go vegan” or is there something in particular that sets vegans apart? I’m particularly interested in better understanding how some people can be moved by the suffering of farm animals to such a degree that they quit meat eating “cold turkey” (pardon the metaphor), never again to succumb to the temptation of meat. I’m also interested in better understanding how so many people can be exposed to the same information about mass animal suffering and react with horror but simply do nothing about it.

To finish, I’d like to hear some recommendations you have for activists or the movement.
I guess my first recommedation would be to do your best to avoid the moral reactance and motivated reasoning when discussing the issue of eating meat with people. This is not always possible, but put yourself in their shoes. How would you react if someone suggested to you that something you really enjoy doing and have been doing most of your life was immoral? immoralPerhaps this is something that you never considered to be a problem before and brings you daily pleasure. Do you think you would be receptive to their message at first? Or would you question their arguments? Would you immediately stop what you have been doing all your life, or would you immediately think of ways in which what you’re doing is perfectly acceptable and not problematic? Once you have made the conversion to not eat meat, it is easy to forget what it is like to see things from the other side – from the perspective of the meat-eating majority, who are wondering what all the fuss is about.
I’d also recommend to advocates to be inclusive and welcoming, and not to give up. We need people to think they really can make a change. We need to empower people, not only with an awareness of how meat production is destroying our world and ruining lives (lives that truly matter), but also give them an opportunity to imagine other ways of viewing the world, particularly how they view themselves, so they can reason through the arguments in a less defensive, self-preserving manner. I think we may have greater success that way.

Thank you, Jared, for this interview!

Vegan meals as the default airplane meal: who will make it happen?

In my previous post, I wrote about changing the default option as an interesting strategy to create behavior (and attitude) change. I suggested this was an interesting tactic especially where institutional change is concerned. It can be used by governments, businesses, organizations… It creates behavior and (indirectly) attitude change, and it doesn’t take away “freedom of choice.”

Here I want to suggest one concrete space where changing the default option could be implemented: airplanes.

When I want a vegan meal on a flight, I need to remember to specify that during booking, find out where on the site I can request it, or contact a travel agent. It’s not the default option, and it’s a bit of a hassle. And requesting my special meal does not even guarantee that I will get it (as happened on my last flight – I always pack my own meal to be sure).

why not make vegan meals the default meals on airplanes?
Why not make vegan meals the default meals on airplanes?

Now imagine it was the other way around: passengers get served a vegan meal (which doesn’t necessarily need to be called vegan; it could be a “vegetable lasagna” or “mushroom risotto” or whatever). If someone complains that the meal contains no meat, the flight attendant would tell them: “I’m sorry, you should have requested a special meal.”

This scheme has several advantages for airlines:

  • it simplifies things: the number of special meals is greatly reduced. Look at this list of options that came with the special meal I had recently. Many of the allergies and preferences (religious or not) would be covered by a vegan meal (though we should be wary of lumping them all together in order to not end up with an entirely tasteless vegan option).

list of special meals on airplane

  • it cuts costs: vegan meals can be cheaper, and there are economies of scale
  • it’s better for the environment, and the airline can use it in their advertising
  • it’s better for food safety. Plant based meals don’t pose the same health risks as meat meals, for instance, in case of a refrigeration problem.

And on top of that, the first airline to do it could get international media attention. It would also set an example for other companies to follow and could be an important precedent. Ideally, the meals would be so good that no one complains, and the airline actually gets famous for its meals.

As the acceptance of vegan meals grows, and as businesses and governments get more sensitive to climate change and health issues, I believe a vegan meal as the default option on airplanes can be realistic.

Any individual or organization ready to campaign for this? Spread the message!

Making vegan the new normal: change the default option

Here’s the conundrum: people don’t like to be told what to do and they don’t like to be pushed into doing something. Yet at the same time, they will often not do the right thing by themselves. How do we solve this?

Part of the answer may lie in what is known as “choice architecture“, a term coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge. Choice architecture is about getting consumers to make better (healthier, more sustainable, or whatever…) choices by presenting their options in a certain way, like putting healthy drinks in a more prevalent spot in the cafeteria than sugared drinks. Through choice architecture, people are nudged, or gently pushed in the right direction.

Commercial companies have of course used this technique for ages, but with commercial interest in mind. Supermarkets, for example, will put prime (or sponsored) products at eye level, where the customer will see them first.

When we give people a nudge by designing their environment, our intentions are more benign: what we basically try to do is to make it easier for consumers to behave the way we want them to behave, and to make the undesirable behavior more difficult.

nudging

One specific kind of nudging is to change the default option. The default option is what you get when you leave the settings unchanged. When you enter a form on a website, there might be a checkbox below the form saying “subscribe me to the newsletter.” This checkbox can be on by default, or off by default. If it’s on by default, people have to take action to turn it off. So turning it on by default will get you more subscribers (though in this case it may sometimes not be legal to set it to on by default).

Let’s look at a more real life example. Regarding organ donation, chances are that in your country, the default option is that after you die, your organs will not be donated to other people who might need them. So if you want your organs to be donated after your death, you have to take action (opt-in). Imagine, conversely, that you have to take action in order to prevent your organs from being donated (opt-out). In this case, where governments “presume consent”, there will be a much higher availability of organs.

Here is in an example in our own field. Thursday Veggieday is a campaign by EVA, the organization I founded and worked for. The idea is much like Meatless Monday: that people start with one day of the week to go veg. The city of Ghent, where I live, adopted this campaign and made vegetarian meals the default option on Thursday in its 30 publicly funded schools. If the pupils want meat even on that day (or if their parents insist), they have to signal that beforehand. The result is that about 94% of the pupils eat vegetarian on Thursday. The default option was changed.

The campaign image of EVA's Thursday Veggieday school campaign. The caption says: "Phew, it's Thursday!"
The campaign image of EVA’s Thursday Veggieday school campaign. The caption says: “Phew, it’s Thursday!”

There are many situations and occasions where a vegan default option could be installed, or experimented with. Basically, this tactic could be used whenever any business or institution offers people meals but is afraid of taking away people’s “choice” to eat animal foods. Meals served at seminars or conferences, for instance, could easily be vegan by default. During sign up, registrants could get an option similar to this one:

vegan default

The nudge to do the right thing could be increased by writing something like “meals are vegan for sustainability reasons.”

Changing the default option in this way has a double effect. Directly, it lowers the consumption of animal products. More indirectly, it shows that vegan is not as abnormal as people think, and that meat eating is not as normal as people think. Changing the default option thus contributes to making vegan the new normal.

I think changing the default option is a very promising strategy that should be applied more often. It may be especially useful when pushing for policy change.

In a follow up post, I give another concrete idea for changing the default option, which at the same time is a challenge for any individual or organization to pick it up and try to make it a reality.

Image source

Further Reading: Nudge, R. Thaler and C. Sunstein
Thursday Veggieday campaign by EVA (Dutch language)

 

Dead vegan babies and rational responses

In Italy, a controversial proposal by a rightist politician would have vegan parents who raise their children as vegans to be put into jail.

In the BBC article the politician is quoted as saying that “there is no objection if the person making this choice is an informed adult. The problem arises when children are involved… ”

baby-eating-vegetables

When the conversation is about parents raising their children vegetarian or vegan, the terms “forcing” or even “brainwashing” often come up. Vegan parents are thought to impose their own ideology and preferences on their children, who have not made that choice themselves, simply because they are not old enough to make conscious decisions on this (or any more complicated) topic.

As a parent, however, you cannot help but make certain choices for your children. Bringing them up as non-vegans is obviously a choice too, even though it may not seem so to many people, because meat eating is the norm today. There are no reasons however, including in the domain of health, why it should be like that. People of all age groups, including babies and young children, can thrive on a balanced vegetarian or even vegan diet. Conversely, roughly 1 in 3 children in Europe (and more in the US) are now overweight. That’s a direct result of this “normal diet” with which we raise them.

It would therefore be difficult to argue that bringing up children with animal products is in any way more valid, correct or justified than raising children without them. Hence we should have no real need for additional arguments in support of the vegan option (but of course we have them). Neither are there reasons to support the statement that children should be vegan only when they themselves have made a conscious decision to be vegans. Parents can make that decision for them.

Incidentally, my experience with vegetarian or vegan parents (I myself have no children) is that many of them do seem to have a bit of a flexible attitude regarding the diet of their babies or young children. The children will of course get information on why the parents do not eat meat, they won’t be served any meat at home and there won’t be meat on their sandwiches to take to school. But they will hear from their parents about what meat is, that other people eat it, and often that if they want to taste it out of the house, they are free to do so. Unfortunately vegan parents must constantly defend and justify their perfectly sound choices to their family, friends, teachers, doctors, etc.

It’s probably hard to give children this information in a neutral and objective way. But on the other hand: consider what parents tell their children when they spontaneously start to question meat (as many do, at a very young age). The parents will say that “the animals didn’t suffer”, that they were bred for this purpose, or that this is just the way the world is and that we have to eat meat. Is that objective information?

Eating animal products is not a neutral idea or custom. The author and psychologist Melanie Joy finds it problematic that a term such as veganism exists while there is no term for the norm (eating meat). Veganism needs to be explained, but the norm doesn’t. Melanie Joy points out that behind our habit of the daily and careless consumption of meat, there is actually also an ideology, which she calls carnism.

When we choose how to raise our children, the choice is not between the “normal option” (animal products) and the ideological option, but between veganism and carnism. Whoever tries to objectively analyze the pros and cons of both systems, may very well find that it makes more sense to raise children vegan, to give them the necessary information when they reach the right age, and then let them decide whether they want to eat animals or not.

When we respond, as vegans, to cases where a baby dies from malnutrition, we need, as always, to respond rationally. Responding emotionally or dogmatically will only confirm to politicians and others what they are already thinking: that vegans are an irrational bunch, feeding their babies an unhealthy diet for ideological reasons. A good response is a calm one, not an angry one (no matter how angry we may feel). A good response will also admit that vegan diets can indeed be unhealthy if not done right. A good response will not present a vegan diet as a panacea against all diseases of affluence, nor will it claim that vegans live umpteen years longer than meat eaters.

When it’s about children, we should be extra cautious with their diet. This applies to vegan as well as non-vegan parents. Vegan parents should be mindful of the potential pitfalls (vitamin B12 among others), and not assume that everything will be all right because veganism is just such a great and “natural” diet (the term “natural” is quite meaningless and misleading). We should also be aware that when we don’t do our due diligence in raising a baby vegan and something goes wrong, then not only is that bad for the child in particular, but also for the whole vegan movement and the image of vegan diets. Many people who eat animal products know that their diet is morally problematic and welcome any excuse to keep on eating what they are eating. The idea that not eating meat is harmful for health would, of course, be a great excuse for them. Let’s be conscientious and careful in the raising of vegan children, and not give them that excuse, for it is a false one.

 

If you want to read more on this topic, check out this article by The Animalist.