Animal liberation, human liberation: one struggle, one fight? An interview with Dr. Kristof Dhont

human fist and animal paw

Animal advocates are often prone to compare the struggle for animal rights with other social justice issues. We love to explain the parallels between sexism and speciecism, or compare animal farming with slavery. To what extent are these issues connected, and if they are, how do we bring this up in a way that is convincing rather than alienating? 

Dr. Kristof Dhont
Dr. Kristof Dhont

I spoke about this topic with Dr Kristof Dhont, a lecturer at the University of Kent, UK. Kristof’s research focuses mainly on the role of personality and situational factors in human intergroup and human-animal relations. He investigates, among other topics, the psychological underpinnings and ideological roots of speciesism, and the motivations of eating and exploiting animals. In a recent paper published in the European Journal of Personality, Kristof and his colleagues investigated the common ideological roots of speciesism and ethnic prejudice. In this interview, we’ll look for those common roots, but we’ll also wonder about the implications for strategy and communication. We also talk about animal rights being mainly a liberal/leftist thing, and why the Christmas meal is possibly the worst time to bring up the plight of animals.

Vegan Strategist: Kristof, what prompted you to do research on the common roots of attitudes towards animals and towards human groups? Can you tell us a bit more about this line of research?
Kristof Dhont: My interest in the assumed interconnectedness of speciesism and prejudices towards human groups (such as racism and sexism) was triggered by slogans like “speciesism = racism = sexism” and pictures of chained animals next to pictures of chained human slaves. Influential philosophers like Peter Singer have written about the parallels between how members from disadvantaged groups are (or have been) treated and the way people treat and think about non-human animals.
From numerous psychological studies, we already knew that people who dislike or express prejudice toward one outgroup (e.g. homosexuals) also tend to dislike a range of other social groups to which they don’t belong (e.g. Blacks, Latinos, poor people, immigrants, Muslims, Jews,… typically groups lower in status or power in a given context), a phenomenon termed “generalized prejudice”. Thus, for instance, people who endorse racist views are more likely to also endorse sexist views. This idea can be broadened to include attitudes towards animals.

human fist and animal paw
one struggle, one fight?

And this is something you went on to test yourself?
Yes, as a first step, my colleagues and I wanted to extend this idea by investigating whether those who express more negative and prejudiced views toward ethnic and religious outgroups would also more strongly endorse exploitative attitudes toward animals (speciesist attitudes). This is exactly what we found, first in a study conducted in Canada and subsequently also in a series of studies conducted in Belgium, the UK and the USA (1). People who expressed greater ethnic prejudice also expressed greater support for a range of practices of animal exploitation such as hunting, factory farming, meat consumption, animal testing, whaling and using animals for human entertainment in for instance circuses or rodeos. In a new set of studies conducted with my graduate student Alina Salmen, we also found consistent support for the links between speciesism and sexism. Recently, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford replicated these findings with a newly developed scale of speciesism.

Do you have an idea as to why this connection would exist?
That’s indeed what we wanted to find out, although we acknowledge that a variety of factors are involved, which we weren’t all able to study together. From the perspective of a psychological scientist, we looked specifically at the role of general ideological beliefs and motives. Our expectation was that desires for dominance and inequality between social groups would play an important role here. More specifically, people differ from each other in the degree to which they prefer a society characterised by a strong hierarchy and inequality between social groups, as opposed to a society characterised by more egalitarian intergroup relationships. This general social orientation or trait is known as social dominance orientation. Our studies showed that a desire for group-based dominance showed substantial associations with both ethnic prejudice and speciesism, and represents a key ideological factor explaining why ethnic prejudice is associated with speciesism.
Related to preferences for hierarchical intergroup relations, also the belief that humans are meant to dominate over animals and the natural environment appeared to be important, not just as predictor of attitudes towards animals, but, for instance, also in predicting attitudes towards women. This shows that the way people think about animals (and about the status of animals) has implications for the way we think about human groups.

Would you call what you are doing “intersectional” research?
Perhaps it depends on how you would define intersectionality. This term seems to be used in different ways, and I haven’t used it in any of my own work yet. Historically, this concept originates from feminist and critical race theories arguing that it doesn’t make much sense to consider social categories such as gender, race, sexual orientation and class in isolation from each other to address discrimination, social inequality and disadvantage in society. Members of disadvantaged social groups often belong to multiple low-status groups (e.g. working-class Black women) and thus experience multiple dimensions of discrimination simultaneously. Not considering these different interwoven (or “intersecting”) statuses is by definition inadequate or at least incomplete according to intersectionality theory. This framework has largely been focusing on the viewpoint of those who experience the disadvantage and, although important, I haven’t done much work from the disadvantaged group perspective.
On a broader level, intersectionality also refers to the idea that different systemic (and institutionalised) forms of oppression such as racism, sexism and homophobia are not just related to each other but are closely intertwined and thus dynamically interconnected. This is more what I have been focusing on in my research, but from a psychological perspective, investigating attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of people, rather than a sociological one. In this sense, I would say that our findings largely support the idea of intersectionality on the individual level. But note that, to date, the term “intersectionality” is still rarely used in mainstream psychological research (and outside specialised fields such as gender studies or ethnic and racial studies).

Back to your findings then, which suggest that the slogans you referred to in the beginning are true to some extent. How helpful do you think these or similar (often more extreme) slogans are for changing people’s ideas about animals?
From the viewpoint of a vegan or animal rights activist, these slogans make total sense and can also stimulate interesting debates and empirical research. Yet for most people it is rather unlikely that they will have the desired impact – perhaps even the contrary. First of all, slogans comparing animal exploitation or meat production to the exploitation of humans, for instance by referring to slavery, the holocaust, oppression of women, only make sense to people if they already accept the underlying presumption that the life or the suffering of human and non-human animals are of equal value. We know that many people and especially meat eaters disagree with this idea and value human life more than the life of an animal, especially of farm animals. For them, such slogans are perceived as irrational, and therefore further ignored at best.

Thought-provoking, or alienating?

I can think of at least three unintended, harmful consequences of using these comparisons. A first possible reaction is that people may not only feel being judged and criticised for eating meat, they may also think that you are calling them a Nazi, racist, sexist and so on, depending on the specific comparison. Rather than raising awareness about animal suffering, your audience will likely be offended and upset because of being accused of something which they (in the majority of cases) are certain that they are not. As a result, people will likely perceive the messenger (the organisation or movement) as more negative and hostile than before, and will be turned off.
A second reaction is that the message comes across as an attempt to downplay or trivialize the severity of the atrocious historical events or social injustice you are using in the comparison. Needless to say, these are extremely sensitive issues and by mentioning for instance the holocaust or slavery you shift attention from the suffering of animals (a topic people care less about) to a topic they care very deeply about and people may find it repulsive that you use others’ suffering for your “own” cause.

muzzled dog, muzzled black slave
Is comparing human and animal slavery persuasive, or mostly offensive?

Finally, imagine the possible reaction of someone who belongs to the minority or historically disadvantaged group that is directly or indirectly compared to animals. How do they feel when activists (most likely white middle class people) compare them – in a way – to animals? Rather than thinking that you value the life of an animal as much as you value human life, they may actually think that you find black people or Jews as no better than animals. There is thus a chance that they feel dehumanised or are perceived as less than human. We know from psychological research that people who feel dehumanised by a certain group will in turn show a strong negative reaction and reciprocal dehumanization toward that group. Again, not the reaction you were hoping for, but quite the opposite.

Can we learn anything from interventions against racism to reduce speciesism or even reduce meat consumption?
It is too early to make strong claims about what works and what doesn’t. There is simply not enough solid research that has addressed this question. One important consideration however, is that what helps to reduce speciesism or improve attitudes toward animals, will not necessarily affect meat consumption. Even though our findings show that people who strongly endorse speciesist beliefs also tend to consume more meat, we also know that people are very good in dissociating meat from animals. This means that many omnivores do care about animals to some extent, but paradoxically have no problem with eating meat. And there are many other motivational, social and external obstacles that prevent people to stop or reduce meat consumption (see the interview with Jared Piazza on this blog).

Overall, however, I do think there is plenty to learn from research on prejudice reduction. I particularly see a lot of promise in interventions focusing on creating opportunities for positive and meaningful interactions between humans and farm animals. Extensive empirical evidence has confirmed that favourable contact between members of different religious or ethnic groups reduces prejudice and improves intergroup relations. Intergroup contact stimulates empathising and taking the perspective of the opposing group, which lead to better mutual understanding and more positive attitudes toward each other. There are good reasons and plenty of anecdotal evidence to expect that having personal contact with farm animals increases empathy toward them, which in turn increases opposition to animal exploitation. This is already possible by visiting farm sanctuaries. Of course, getting people to visit farm sanctuaries in the first place and letting them build a connection with animals, would be another challenge to overcome. Schools and youth or community organisations could play a meaningful role here to make this happen.
Also, other intervention techniques that increase perspective taking, for instance through media, storytelling, virtual reality, or mental simulations, may work in similar ways. Note that such interventions do not actively try to convince people about what is right or wrong, but allow them to experience something and consequently make up their own minds, avoiding the problem of persuasion resistance.

Another conclusion from your research is that people on the right/conservative side of the political spectrum on average more strongly support animal exploitation and typically consume more meat. Is there any way to make use of this finding in our animal advocacy?
Obviously, you don’t need to be a scientist to know or notice that animal rights and vegetarianism/veganism receive more support by progressives/liberals than by conservatives. Many vegans or animal advocates consider themselves liberal or left-wing. By emphasising principles of equality and advocating for social change, animal rights seems to belong inherently in the left-wing corner. But labeling these topics as liberal or left-wing may also further increase the ideological divide between left- and right-leaning people and groups, and thus lead to even more political polarization on this topic. It is not because conservatives are less likely to support animal rights or less willing to reduce their meat consumption, that calling conservatives animal exploiters and liberals animal lovers will help the animals. Such messages may even encourage conservatives to eat more meat and take pride in it, if it’s seen as a conservative thing to do. And in the end, also the vast majority of liberals still eats meat. At the same time, many people on both sides of the political spectrum are against animal cruelty.

How can we move away from the political polarization of animal rights and veganism?
By being more mindful of the values of people across the political spectrum, and especially by being mindful of the values that conservatives find important. Framing the case for animal rights in terms of equality values (or egalitarianism) and social change/justice values will turn off conservatives, given that these are values that they find either not important or even in contradiction to their own values. Conservatives tend to resist social change and care deeply about family and cultural traditions, which in many cases involve meaty meals or other kinds of animal exploitation. It is hard to overestimate the importance of such traditions for people’s identity and moral framework. They bring family and community members together, are a source of intense gustatory pleasure, and ultimately provide a sense of social cohesion, stability and collective security. They are the social glue of the family or community. Bluntly criticizing some of the core aspects of these traditions – such as the meal – will likely come across as an attack on the values and traditions themselves, and will be met with resentment and defensiveness. Left-wing animal advocates likely consider such traditions as irrelevant and unimportant for their own moral choices, yet they should acknowledge the central role they play in many other people’s lives, particularly of conservatives. In this sense, perhaps one of the worst moments to start discussing veganism is during the Christmas or Thanksgiving meal. The real challenge here is taking animal exploitation out of the tradition without ending the traditions themselves, and providing adequate alternatives.
Also important is that across the ideological spectrum, people are sensitive to suffering and harm, and value caring for those who are suffering. Compassion is thus not a partisan issue and appeals to people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. In sum, when it comes down to moral arguments, the most important idea behind animal ethics, the principle of “do no harm” resonates with the moral values of both liberals/progressives and conservatives. Further avoiding the emphasis on principles that are only valued by the left and being mindful of some moral principles valued by conservatives like traditions, could go a long way in avoiding the ideological polarisation of animal rights.

(1) Dhont, Hodson, Costello, & MacInnis, 2014; Dhont, Hodson, & Leite, 2016

Thinking about disrupting meat eaters at a restaurant? Read this first.

Activists disupting people's meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne

Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) are the animal rights activists behind the attention-grabbing disruptions of meat eaters in restaurants. Their action in Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne Australia, on Jan. 30 2018, sure got a lot of headlines. Dozens of protesters went into the restaurant, chanting on megaphones and holding posters with pictures of suffering animals. Some vegans applaud these tactics and participate in them, others call them cringeworthy. Here are some thoughts.

Activists disupting people's meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne
Activists disupting people’s meal at Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne

Two reasons to start the revolution
I can imagine that people take to these in-your-face tactics for two entirely different reasons. Reason number one could be that, with all the animal suffering and killing, vegans feel frustrated and want to speed things up. I sure can understand that people feel change is too slow.
The other reason seems almost like the opposite of the first: we’ve seen a lot of news coverage in the last two years or so that testifies to the growing popularity of plant-based eating: vegan startups doing really great (sometimes with investments from the meat industry), new vegan products being sold out as soon as they show up, celebrities going vegan, spectacular-sounding growth in the number of vegans, and so on. I presume that information like this may embolden some vegans and lead them to think that the time is ripe for action of this sort. The revolution is upon us!

My belief is that neither the ongoing suffering of the animals and our resultant frustration, nor the good news and our optimism, should inspire us, at this moment, to organize actions like restaurant disruptions. I’m not talking about direct action tactics in general. Indeed, I have no problem with these when they are well targeted (see below). But, I think in this case, the action is misguided and misdirected.

“Don’t tell people they are wrong”
In what follows, I’ll be paraphrasing a lot from a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2017, titled To persuade others, pay attention to their values. Panelists were Matthew Feinberg, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, and Rob Willer, professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford.* The session is worth listening to in its entirety, but at one point, the moderator asks the researchers if they can give some advice on what not to do when you want to change someone’s mind.

The first thing Feinberg and Willer come up with, based on their extensive research, is: do not tell others that their values or their morals are wrong – unless you want to create an argument rather than persuade them. One’s moral values are so much part of one’s identity that to have them challenged very much constitutes a threat or reproach. People usually react defensively when threatened – in the moral domain, this is called “moral reactance”. I’ve previously written about one form that this reactance may take: do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of the one who does something good. The biggest problem with this is not that activists are ridiculed or judged negatively, but rather the fact that because of this reactance, people will be even less likely to change. (One tentative indication that this reactance took place in Melbourne may be found in the fact that the restaurant’s social media following has increased significantly as a result of this incident.)

So, what do these guys suggest as a solution? They suggest trying to reframe the issue in terms of values that your audience cares about. I’ll write about that in another post.

“Don’t engage in extreme behaviors”
The second thing the panelists recommend that activists shouldn’t do is to engage in extreme behaviors. What the researchers found in terms of a lot of protests and other activism is that the more extreme the tactic is, the more likely it is to turn people off. Feinberg and Willer here identify a paradox: if you want attention for your cause, you need the media. But, the behavior that the media is most likely to pick up on is the extreme behavior that is most likely to turn off the average reader or viewer, who, as a result, will be less likely to support your cause. The researchers add that, interestingly, activists who are themselves involved in these extreme behaviors, when polled, indicate that they find these tactics effective, not just for getting people’s attention (which they are correct in), but also for persuading people – (which they are not correct in).

(Side note: many vegans outside of DxE seem to believe, like me, that these tactics are not effective – and this difference of opinion within the vegan community seems to be, in and of itself, an interesting topic for the media.)

On the Facebook page of Melbourne Cow Save – who I’m assuming co-organized the restaurant protest – we can read: “This action wasn’t about educating people about veganism. It was about taking non-violent direct action to end the exploitation and killing of all animals. It was to force animal rights into the public consciousness through non-violent direct action”.
Yes, they were definitely able to get their message out there and get people talking. But is that necessarily a good thing? Getting an issue into public consciousness is not the same as changing that consciousness (and consequently, in the best case, the behavior). There certainly is value in raising awareness and helping to make a cause the topic of conversation, but if it is done in a way that mainly causes moral reactance, it’s probably far from ideal.

Cows aren’t puppies
I believe one of the mistakes DxE people are likely to make is to have too much confidence in the parallels between their cause and other social justice movements. They often refer to the non-violent civil disobedience and direct action organized by Martin Luther King or Gandhi, claiming – rightly, I think – that these tactics were instrumental in bringing about the desired change.

While I do not deny that there may be important lessons to be drawn from other social justice movements, we need to be mindful of the fact that the animal movement is not in the same phase at this time as the civil rights movement was when people used these tactics to advocate for an end to racial discrimination. We need to keep in mind where our movement is in terms of the level of public support for our cause. I can imagine that this kind of direct action would go over much better, and have a bigger impact, if it were about something on which most people agreed with the protesters. An DxE activist is actually quoted as saying, “If they [the restaurant] were selling the bodies of dead puppies in that place and we disrupted it, we’d be hailed as heroes.” Well yes, probably, but whether vegans see a difference or not between cows and puppies, the audience at large does.

It’s good to meet the audience where they’re at, and not expect them to have our values or adopt those values on the spot. For example, disrupting a restaurant where puppies are being eaten would be very effective in a Western country where most people share the value that dogs are companions, not food. However, in some parts of the world, eating dogs isn’t seen in the same way, and, therefore, a disruption would not be nearly as effective. Meanwhile, disrupting people eating beef in a country like India, where commonly held views on cows are very different from those in Western countries, may actually be effective.

Let’s give people no excuse not to listen
So, no, these activists, as the spokesperson realizes, will not be seen as heroes. The fact that this matters is not an ego concern, and undoubtedly, the protesters have no problem not being liked. Indeed, to some extent, they may actually welcome being considered a pain in the butt. But, we vegans are still a tiny group who can still use – indeed, require – much more support than we currently have. We need to do things that enlarge the support we get, rather than alienating potential allies. Even though things seem to be getting better, as vegans, we are still fighting an uphill battle against stigmatization, against people believing we are all kinds of things: crazy, angry, negative, preaching, never satisfied. We should not feed or confirm these perceptions (which are sometimes true, but most often not), and we should certainly not give people any excuse not to listen to us.

Potential benefits
Having said all this, let me try to be the most charitable I can be – of course, my heart is with these activists – and play the devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s see if we can come up with arguments in favor of such restaurant disruptions and other radical tactics.

  • Maybe such tactics make more moderate animal rights activists and other vegans seem more approachable and rational when compared to this so-called radical element (this is the so-called “radical flank effect), and that could be a good thing. However, it’s equally possible that many people who still believe it’s acceptable to eat animal products will continue to equate the less radical parts with the radical part and, thus, consider all vegans as radical or extreme. It’s not true, and not right, but it’s all too human.
  • One good thing I can see about DxE (and also about some other forms of street activism) is that it seems to attract and recruit a lot of activists. Vegans who until then had been passive, get fired up seeing DxE demos and become activists (see the explanation for the pull of this further down this post). And, being an activist (i.e., doing something more for the animals than just not eating them), is important. But, of course, if we have serious doubts about whether at least these DxE actions have a positive impact, more people participating in them wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. If there is a discrepancy between actions that attract activists and those which are effective, then it seems to me we should see if we can attract new activists with these maybe not ideal actions, and then try to move them towards more effective forms of activism, maybe organized by the same group.
  • I will also grant that there is a lot of uncertainty about what works, what works better and what doesn’t work. Often, it is not easy at all to measure the impact of certain forms of activism. Defenders of DxE tactics will say that even if people react very negatively to the protests at first, the protests might plant seeds, and these seeds may later sprout and change people’s minds. I consider that possible, though given the significant risk of alienating potential allies by these actions, the burden of proof that these actions are effective should be on DxE.
  • Finally, I’m quite open to the idea that some day restaurant disruptions like this could be quite effective, even though I personally may never like how they feel. I can imagine that in a world where we have most people on our side, it can be helpful to give the laggards the feeling that they are, well… lagging. But, that time is not now.

The warm glow of group solidarity
One other advantage these actions can offer – although they are not the only type of action to do so – is to give activists energy and a sense of belonging, as well as increasing group cohesion. Let me bring in Feinberg and Willer one last time. When they’re asked about what people get from coming together with others that share their values, this is their answer  – and I think it will speak to a lot of vegans:

“You get a lot of things out of binding together with morally similar others and expressing moral judgments about the same things that you think are wrong and should be condemned, and finding togetherness and praising things you think are morally praiseworthy. You can develop a sense of morally-based group solidarity, which is a powerful thing. (…) It’s a great feeling when you join together with like-minded others and find yourself celebrating this commonality that goes all the way down to the depths of your convictions. People’s values are their deepest held beliefs, by definition. They’re willing to fight and die to defend their values. And so, when you can come together with other people and celebrate these values and share them, and discriminate between yourselves and those who don’t hold those values, that can be a powerfully transcending experience and generate strong feelings of trust within the group. It’s not strange and it’s not objectionable that people do that, that they are pulled to that sort of thing.

It is, indeed, not wrong or objectionable to go for these feelings, and especially in a world where few people agree with us, it is normal that we seek out the confirmation of like minded-people. But we should be careful that the warm glow we get from doing activism does not blind us to the actual impact of our actions.

We must be careful, in other words, not to confuse feeling good and doing good.

 

Want to read more about vegan strategy and communication? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World.

 

* Even though I’m quoting from a podcast and obviously one person was always speaking at one time, I will quote as Feinberg and Willer, because I couldn’t distinguish between the voices on the podcast.

One reason why people may not like vegans: no one likes to feel that they are immoral

To many vegetarians and vegans it’s a mystery: we’re doing our best to be caring and compassionate towards all sentient life, and therefore choose to boycott eating animal products. Isn’t that something commendable? But then why do so many people seem to mock, criticize or even attack vegans and veganism?

Sure, at times we can be a little annoying. We may inconvenience omnivores by making them wait while we inspect labels, or by vetoing their choice of restaurant when we go out for dinner. But this doesn’t really explain the hostility and ridicule that we may encounter at times.

Part of what’s happening here is a phenomenon called do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of morally motivated others.

You may have experienced it yourself as a vegetarian or vegan: without even having said anything at all, meat eaters at the table may get defensive by making fun of you and your “diet”.

Why does this do-gooder derogation happen? The problem is that people will often feel that your behavior (i.e., your eating or being vegan) is an implicit condemnation of theirs (their eating meat). Morally good behavior seems to often come with an implicit moral reproach towards others.

According to researchers who have studied do-gooder derogation, “moral reproach, even implicit, stings because people are particularly sensitive to criticism about their moral standing (…). Because of this concern with retaining a moral identity, morally-motivated minorities may be particularly troubling to the mainstream, and trigger resentment.” The response to this threat to our moral identity, then, is to put down the source of the threat (Minson and Morin).

Merely thinking about how vegetarians see the morality of non-vegetarians can trigger the derogation effect. When meat eaters anticipate moral reproach by vegetarians – i.e., when meat eaters think that vegetarians would morally condemn them – they will tend to increase their derogation.

Now, the biggest problem that should concern us here is not that the ethical consumers (in this case, the vegans) are offended, ridiculed or treated badly, but that the denigrators themselves will be less committed to ethical values in the future. In other words, the negative comparison doesn’t just offend the vegans, but prevents the meat eaters – out of some kind of self protection – from taking steps towards veganism themselves (Zane).

So, to summarize, this is what may happen (worst case scenario).


This is obviously problematic for the spread of vegan values and behavior. So, here are my suggestions to avoid causing non-vegans to feel morally reproached, and thus to derogate vegans and veganism, and thus become more alienated from us and our message.

  1. Don’t “rub it in”. If people often feel guilty already, and experiencing moral reproach alienates them from us and our message, don’t add to their feeling of guilt or moral reproach by further guilt-tripping them. It won’t help (even though sometimes it might be fun or satisfying to us).
  2. Don’t only use moral messages and arguments. These can be problematic in the sense that they bring forth more do-gooder derogation than non-moral messages. Non-vegans feel less threatened by people who eat a plant-based diet for health reasons than by ethical vegans. This doesn’t mean you have to stop using ethical arguments; just that also talking about health (or taste) can be strategic and productive.
  3. Talk about your own imperfections. We can tell others some of the things we do while we know we shouldn’t. Maybe we talk about how we didn’t change overnight and needed some convincing ourselves. Or we can talk about other domains in which we’re doing less great. It’s important to show others that we’re not different from them, not some kind of alien species with a level of morality or discipline they could never attain.
  4. You may want to make explicit the distinction between the act and the person. Choosing to not eat animal products is a morally better choice, but that doesn’t mean that people who are still eating animal products are bad people.

Rather than adding to derogation, alienation and disempowerment, we can do our own part in creating connection and rapport with others.

(Read much more on effective communication in my new book, How to Create a Vegan World).

References

The carnivore is king – and other lessons from sales and marketing

Whether we like it or not, as people who want to change the world, we are in the business of selling something. We want to sell a message, a habit, a lifestyle… whatever you want to call it. We are idea merchants, and we need to get as many people as we can on our bandwagon, in whatever ways that are helpful.
I love to read out of the box and see if I can apply ideas from different domains to our movement. Here are some concepts and lessons I’ve taken from sales and marketing (check the links below each item to read some of my previous writings on these topics).

The carnivore is king
(Technically I should use “omnivore”, of course, but you understand I needed something with a c here)
As the carnivore is the person that we want to reach and want to become part of our team, we can’t alienate them. They are our future supporters. We can see them as pre-vegans. Badmouthing them will usually not motivate them to come closer to us. If we’re angry at them, if we accuse them or judge them, that’s kind of equal to giving up on them joining our team. Rather, like with customers, we need to listen to them, treat them like royalty, give them a cookie or bake them a pie (we can always throw it in their face if they really behave like assholes).
You are not your audience
You are not the same as the people you want to reach. Like a car salesperson, you have to adapt your message to what you think people like, are interested in, are open to, are ready for. Just talking about what you want to talk about is equal to the car salesperson talking endlessly about a car’s horsepower or technical abilities (because that is what fascinates them) to a young parent who is only interested in the safety aspects. It’s about your audience’s needs. Not your own.
Diffusion of innovation
We need to segment our “customers” into different categories. Innovators have different reasons for picking something up than the late majority. As vegans, we’re all innovators, and the arguments that worked for us will not necessarily work for people who are, in this domain, laggards. The famous marketer Seth Godin puts it like this: “The mistake idea merchants make is that they bring their fringe ideas to people who don’t like fringe ideas, instead of taking their time and working their way through the progression.”
What Godin and others are saying is that we should meet people where they are, and appeal to the values that they already cherish, rather than telling them which values they should have.

See Vegans: not like other people

Winning an argument is losing a customer
Even if the other person tells you that you are right, you haven’t necessarily had a positive impact. When the other person feels they’ve lost, it may make them feel even less sympathetic towards you or the cause you defend. Benjamin Franklin said it like this: “if you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.” Dale Carnegie said it even simpler: “You can’t win an argument”.
See On being right versus winning

Persuasion resistance
Most people don’t like to be convinced by others and don’t like being told what to do. Also, with regard to the food that’s on their plate, they’ll decide about that themselves. They need no government regulations or animal rights or vegetarian groups preaching to them about what to eat, and what not, how much of it, or how they should prepare it. They’ll make up their own minds about all that, thank you very much. It is, therefore, more productive if we don’t give people the impression we want to persuade them of something, and instead help them come to their own conclusions.
See Persuasion resistance

Customer retention
Finding new customers is a lot more expensive than trying to keep customers and make sure they buy again. In our domain, research shows that a large number of vegetarians and vegans – no less than 84% – at some point drop out. We should have enough attention for customer retention, and make sure that as few vegans slide off the wagon as possible. We can do that, among other things, by helping to make it easier to be vegan, creating communities, and having enough attention for nutritional pitfalls.See research by Faunalytics

Switching costs
Many people care about animals, but are afraid of the practical consequences of caring about them. It is, in other words, too difficult to make the switch. Switching costs, in marketing terms, are the costs that one incurs when changing products, suppliers, brands, etc. These costs can be financial, but they can also be, for example, time costs or psychological costs. Phone or insurance companies, for instance, want to make switching to their product as little of a hassle as possible (while at the same time, trying to make switching away from their products as difficult as possible.). Likewise, we need to make it as easy as possible for people to move up the vegan spectrum. Preferably, so easy that they don’t even need any reason or motivation.

Know of more sales concepts that are useful for advocacy? Let me know…

Should we tell people that going vegan is easy?

Many vegans love to tell other people that going vegan is sooo easy. Indeed, it has become a lot easier, but I would argue that to most people going vegan is still not easy. One good indication of this is research that tells us that not even staying vegan is easy for most vegans: 75% of them fall off the wagon at some point.

Maybe going vegan was easy for you and me (actually, it wasn’t for me), but that shouldn’t lead us to uncritically extrapolate and assume that it’s easy for everyone. I always emphasize that maybe the most important skill for any activist is the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes (or to walk in their shoes). If you want to influence somebody into thinking or behaving differently, you need to know, first of all, what their experience of the world is.

That is important because others’ experience can be so completely different from yours, that what worked for you will not work for them.

It is tempting to think that reality is reality, and that we all experience it more or less the same way. But of course that’s not the case. Here’s an interesting example. Last week, pollsters asked voters whether Trump’s campaign had stabilized after the offensive videorecording came out. Look at how perception among Republicans and Democrats differed:

trump-perception

Reality of course remains the same in both groups’ cases: Trump’s campaign is in big trouble and he’s dealing with a lot of criticism coming from all kinds of corners of society. But looking at these graphs, you would almost think that Republicans and Democrats are each seeing a different version of Trump and his campaign. And to a certain extent, that’s true: they each have their own experience and their respective perception shapes their “reality”. Everyone is influenced by their biases, fears, wishes, etc.

We may think that we are the only ones seeing reality the way it is: unfiltered, unchanged. For instance, we may believe that no matter what others say, it is easy to be vegan today (especially when seen in the light of what is at stake, and what the animals go through, right?).

“Easy” however, is a relative concept. What is easy for you may not be easy for me and the other way round. We need to take into account the biases I mentioned, but also things like: the place where people live; whether they have certain health problems or allergies (imagine someone with a soy and gluten allergy); their general openness to new things, etcetera.

If people tell us that they find it hard to go vegan, and we just say it’s not (just like in the picture below), we’re not winning. Giving people tips and assistance on how to make going vegan easier for them is something altogether different than telling them it’s easy, period (and maybe implying that if they dare say it’s not easy, it means that they are selfish and put their own comfort above the misery of other creatures).

deep

 

People will not feel listened to and appreciated when you ignore how they experience reality. A better way to deal with this is to recognize the difficulty they are having, empathize with it, and say that others (maybe including yourself) have experienced the same thing. The feel – felt – found technique offers a way to do this:

  1. I understand how you feel (recognize the problem)
  2. Others have felt the same (show they are not the only one)
  3. They found that after a while they… (show that change is possible, maybe explain the solutions they found)

When you explain that you (or if not you, then other people) had similar difficulties, you also don’t give the person the idea that you are some kind of superbeing (since you find easy something that they find very hard), and they will be able to identify much more with you.

Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate the difficulties in going vegan either. By all means, we can say that it’s perfectly possible and feasible, and getting easier every day. But looking at the world through other people’s eyes, recognizing their challenges, and helping them surmount them will serve us better than just declaring that going vegan is easy.

 

Why changing (our) minds is so hard

Our ability to change our mind is a beautiful thing. Of course, sometimes minds are too easily changed: people can be under the sway of dictators, gurus, marketeers and just buy whatever those people are selling, without any critical thinking. But for many other people, changing their mind is a lot harder, especially when we’re talking about deeply held and cherished beliefs. These can be moral in nature (questions about whether GMOs, eating meat, spending a lot of money on going to other planets… are ok or not…), or factual (whether eating meat is healthy or not, whether there’s alien life on other planets, etc).

I love it when people, after having given an issue or question their consideration, suddenly say that they have changed their mind about it and now hold a completely different, sometimes diametrically opposed, opinion on it. In this post I wanted to give you my thoughts on why this is actually rare. I will touch on three issues involved in changing minds (ours or other people’s):

1. changing our mind about something is hard
2. we don’t like other people to change our mind
3. we don’t like to admit we changed our mind, and we definitely don’t like to admit that it was other people who changed our mind

(c) thebigriddle.com
(c) thebigriddle.com


Changing our mind about something is hard

Why is that? Basically, we like to see confirmed the opinions and ideas that we already have. We want to justify what we are already thinking, and we don’t like any information that contradicts what we believe. Therefore we will be much more open to even notice information that confirms our ideas and opinions (this is called confirmation bias). Put simply, if you believe A rather than B, you’ll be more likely to seek out and find and believe stuff that confirms A. It goes without saying that this confirmation bias makes it a lot more difficult to change your mind. Just do the experiment: how likely are you (as a vegetarian or vegan) to read (and seriously consider) an article called “Three arguments against veganism”. Maybe you say you won’t read it because you know what is in there and because in the case of veganism there are no good arguments against it. But that would exactly prove your confirmation bias, I’m afraid.

Changing one’s mind about whether it’s right or wrong to eat animal products is especially challenging, because this is an issue with concrete, real world consequences (not everything is: we may never be confronted with an issue like abortion, for instance). Suppose we’re omnivores, who suddenly come to the conclusion that eating animals is wrong (i.e. we just changed our minds). We are then suddenly experiencing that our behavior doesn’t match our beliefs. The friction that we feel as a result of this is called cognitive dissonance, and the theory of cognitive dissonance says that we will try to resolve this “dissonance” (it’s not a nice experience). There are two ways to do this: 1. we follow up on our new belief and reconcile our behavior with it (we become vegan). Or 2. we don’t want to go vegan (we like meat), so we adapt our belief so that it matches with our behavior. We say things like: eating animal products is not that bad, animals are raised for this, the meat I eat comes from animals that didn’t suffer, etc. People who want to avoid going vegan would do best to ignore all the pro-vegan information altogether. This way they can avoid to change their mind and their behavior. So, another answer to the question why changing our mind is so hard is: we often have an active interest (a stake, or a steak!) in not doing so.

Let me offer one suggested solution to this quandary: we must make it easier for people to change their minds by making sure the negative consequences of changing one’s mind are as small as possible (see my talk Making Compassion Easier). In other words, we’ll need to provide people with great alternatives to animal products, which are available everywhere, at competitive prices.

We don’t like other people to change our mind

All of us like to think of ourselves as adult, mature individuals, who can make up our own mind about things. We do not like anyone to tell us how to think, and value our – real or perceived – autonomy. I remember being in a bookstore with a friend, and pointing to a book that I thought he should read. He picked it up and when he read on the cover “this book can change your life”, he snorted, said “I”ll change my own life, thank you very much”, and put the book down.

Already 350 years ago, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others”. You may have experienced that when you tried to influence or convince someone of something that you believe in, they just dig in their heels even deeper, and the distance between you and them only becomes bigger.

Our task, then, would be to help people discover the arguments to change their minds by themselves, rather than us offering them those arguments (and telling them their opinion or arguments are incorrect). One way to do this is by mainly asking them questions, as is done with the so-called Socratic method. Socrates, in his dialogues with others (as written out by Plato), didn’t offer his discussion partners his own opinion, but teased out their own arguments, doubts, assumptions etc. by asking them questions. When someone defends eating meat on the basis that it’s what predators do in the wild too, rather than telling them that these predators don’t have the moral apparatus or the alternative in terms of veggie burgers to help them behave differently, we could ask something like: can you see any difference between humans and lions in this respect?

We don’t like to admit that we changed our mind

I started this post by saying how I admire when people change their minds. I admire it also when they can publicly acknowledge this. However, the latter is very hard to do for most people. We believe that showing that we changed our mind is the same as admitting that we made a mistake, and that this makes us look weak, stupid, or whatever. This is a matter of self-preservation and saving face.

How often do you hear a public figure, like a politician, say that they changed their mind? They have good reason to avoid saying that, because their audience tends to think of politicians who change their mind as wishy-washy people with wishy-washy, unstable opinions (if this person changed their mind about this today, will they not change his mind again tomorrow, about the same thing or another thing?). We expect people like politicians to be well-informed from the start and to never change course once they have chosen one (though of course we will be happy if they change their minds in a direction that we applaud). The result is that people will rather hold on to an opinion, long after they’ve been convinced it’s not a correct one. This goes for politicians as well as in our own relationship disputes.

Suggested solution: given that it’s hard for people to admit that they changed their mind, we can try to avoid them having to admit it. What I mean is that, if we would love a person to change their mind from x to y, it is good not to have them defend x too much. As soon as we start a discussion with them about x or y, and they defend x, the more difficult it will be for them later to choose y. And if we present ourselves all the more as champions of y, it becomes even more difficult for them to change, as y will be associated with someone else. It will be the opinion of someone else that they copied (the second issue I discussed above). What’s happening is known as polarization: two parties having opposing viewpoints, just getting even more opposed, digging their heels in. The more one party defends their position, the more difficult it will be for them to change their mind. I think this dynamic will be the most explicit where two people already have some kind of competition going on: siblings, roommates, partners… who debate a lot.

Basically the other should have the idea that once they change their mind, we won’t be there to tease them with things like “See! See now that you were wrong before?!” or “ha, finally you listened to me (and allowed me to influence you)!”. Try to help make sure that the other person will not lose face. Try to make sure they don’t have to admit defeat because there was no battle to begin with. This means trying to not present an issue as a conflict of arguments, as two different positions being opposed to each other. Show how it’s not a black and white matter, how the other party already shares some of your opinions and how you already share some of theirs. This way once a party changes their mind, it will not seem as if they switched camp (and should therefore be afraid of losing face) but just integrated some of your arguments and are now seeing things differently.

Another thing that can help people avoid losing face when changing their mind is when there is another factor (which is not you) that they can attribute their change to. People might be wary of changing as long as they fear having to acknowledge your influence on them, but they might more easily do so if they can attribute it to for instance a change in their health situation (the doctor told them something), or because there’s now an organic store nearby, or they discovered they are allergic to dairy… All of these and many more factors can offer good reasons or excuses (it doesn’t matter) to change their mind. If you discover that there might be such a reason, by all means, let them use it, and don’t insist that it was *you* who was the determining factor in changing their mind.

Needless to say, the ability and readiness to change one’s mind will vary a lot among individuals. Some people may be extremely stubborn. Or people may be able to easily change their mind in some domains, but not in others. Some people will be good at changing their mind across the board. These people are 1. very rational or 2. very mature, or both. The rational people just go for anything that seems correct to them. They are to a large extent aware of their possible biases, and they know that it’s not because *you* gave them some arguments that these arguments are not true and that they shouldn’t carefully evaluate them. Maturity helps them to acknowledge your influence without feeling in any way humiliated or inferior. Mature people are not afraid of looking weak.

In general, it is safe to assume that on big issues like eating meat, changing minds is not easy. Still, it is possible. I think our role is ideally the one of a kind of coach that helps tease out arguments and ideas that others already believe, rather then telling them how to think.

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

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

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!

Why most people eat meat

In the 1950’s, the American psychologist Solomon Asch recruited participants at Swarthmore College (United States) for a now famous experiment.* He told them he was doing research on perception, but in reality this was a study about conformity and social pressure. Asch showed the participants a set of pictures like the one below.

asch_experiment

Each time he showed such a picture, Asch asked which of the bars on the right was of the same length as the one bar on the left. Participants had to state their answer out loud in the group. However, Asch made sure that all but one of the group members were conspirators, whom he had all ordered to give the same wrong answer. The only real, unsuspecting participant had to give their answer after all the others. To his surprise, Asch found that a disturbingly large number of people in this situation gave a wrong answer themselves. It led Asch to conclude: “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.” In some cases, people’s reason to give a clearly incorrect answer was that they thought the group was right. In other cases respondents apparently were afraid of seeming different than the rest or didn’t want to cause any trouble.

It’s not difficult to transfer these findings to our own subject. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that many people feel deep down that there is something wrong with the food they eat. They might believe it’s okay to kill animals for food but also believe that those same animals should at least “have a good life.” Or they might believe it’s not worth killing an animal for food at all. But when all these people constantly see around them that eating meat (or animal products) is treated as normal, it is hard to even believe in that vague feeling of discomfort they may have, and it becomes a lot harder to think that something really wrong is going on. Even as a vegetarian or vegan, as someone who’s really internalized the principle that it is not ok to eat animal products, you may have these small moments of doubt, wondering if you are actually seeing things right. The South-African writer and Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee attributes the following thoughts to his vegetarian character Elisabeth Costello:

“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. (…) Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”

In part because there’s still only a tiny minority of the people making a problem of meat eating or acting differently, most people don’t often consciously stop to think about meat eating as a moral issue. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, it is one of the major conclusions of the golden age of social psychology that “people take their cues on how to behave from other people.” To the question why most people eat meat, this is one answer that we can give: most people eat meat because most people eat meat.”

most people eat meat

Hence, the importance of critical mass. Change requires numbers. We need enough people to voice their doubts, to show their concern, to not participate, to eat differently, so that others no longer get the idea that meat is natural, normal and necessary.

Congrats to all of you who are not afraid to think differently and stand out from the crowd!

 

*Watch this video to learn more about the Asch experiment.