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 🙂