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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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).
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:
I understand how you feel (recognize the problem)
Others have felt the same (show they are not the only one)
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.
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
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 Pascalwrote 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Motivated 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.
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 eat 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.
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? Perhaps 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.
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.
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.”
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.
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”, Oscar Wilde has one of his characters say in The Importance of Being Earnest. The same can be said about the motivations for our activism: rarely pure, and never simple. Those who think they do what they do for the animals only, should think again, or need to apply for sainthood or official enlightenment status.
All of us changemakers and do-gooders (vegans or otherwise) have motivations that go beyond just helping the beings we want to help. We are also in search of recognition. We want to feel meaningful, have a sense of belonging, be important maybe. We want to be seen. We want to feel like we are good people. We have a need to be consistent. Maybe we want to atone for something we think we did wrong. Motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins put it very succinctly, and in my view very correctly. He says that all of us – in whatever culture – fear that we are not enough, and that we are afraid that if we’re not enough, then we won’t be loved. We’re on a quest for love, all of us. And we have different ways of trying to get that love we think we need.
These feelings and motivations are indeed very human and are nothing to be ashamed of. Yet it is good to be aware of them and not pretend that they don’t exist and that we do what we do for the animals (or other humans) only. Because through being aware of these “impure motivations”, we may, whenever necessary, at least partially filter them out and see clearer. Sometimes this is extra necessary, because sometimes these motivations can really prevent us from being the most effective we can be. There’s an old Platters song called Smoke gets in your eyes. These more personal motivations, just like smoke, can get in your eyes too, preventing us from seeing clearly.
With a general term, that shouldn’t be interpreted too negatively, we can call these motivations ego-centric. Let me be dead honest in this post and give you an illustration how ego-centric motivations can get into my own eyes. The other day, a friend told me she would be doing some research around an outreach strategy which I’m not particularly fond of. I caught myself thinking for a moment how I hoped her conclusion would be that this strategy is not effective. I hoped this because if it would turn out to be effective, it wouldn’t particularly fit within my theories and strategies. I am someone who has invested quite some time in thinking about strategy and developing strategies. So I would love it if my thinking is right and I don’t want it to be contradicted. Not only would much of my work appear to me as a waste of time, I would also lose face, both in my own eyes and in others’.
It goes without saying that such an attitude, a confirmation bias, can blind me to some important information, make my theories etc more incomplete and less correct than they could be, and thus harm my advocacy. Not a good thing for the beings I want to help. I’m sure you can imagine other people who are married to their theories and ideologies to such an extent that they have trouble accepting any evidence, indications or even suggestions of something that contradicts them. Similarly, activists like to think that the kind of actions they do and are investing time in, are effective. Indications to the contrary may be experienced as threatening. Still more general, as vegans we don’t want our veganism – an important part of our identity – to be criticized. Yet all this close-mindedness is not a good thing.
This quote by Leo Tolstoy comes to mind: “I know that most men, 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 life.”
Let me be honest on a meta-level too, about my motivation for writing this (this gets complicated!). Admitting to this, showing that I am aware of my own confirmation bias, is strategically a good thing to do. It may inspire confidence in others, who may think: this person tries to discover his own blind spots, and knows that he may be deluding himself. He is obviously trying to get to as much Truth as he can get. Maybe I’ll read some more of this guy. And this honesty may inspire even more confidence in you. And so on.
So two take aways from this post:
it’s good to be aware of our ego-centric motivations
showing our weaknesses, our awareness that we may have blind spots, our vulnerabilities, may inspire confidence in other people rather than the opposite.
A question: do you think people should be allowed to kill animals for pleasure?
If you belong to the majority of the population, your answer would be: “No, of course not. Not for pleasure.” You’re thinking about bullfights, trophy hunting, or barbaric traditions with animals in other countries.
When I tell you that in this case you are probably also against the killing of animals for food, I assume that already you might be feeling feel a certain resistance. Possibly you may be aware of some defense mechanisms, and you may entertain certain thoughts about the writer of this piece. Still, I hope you read on.
Food, you say, is not just about pleasure. Food is necessary.
Yes, food certainly is necessary. But meat is not. Both scientific research as well as the practice of millions of vegetarians and vegans around the globe, have shown that Homo sapiens can perfectly do without meat – or any animal products. Anyone who still believes that they are necessary for health, should have his ears checked, or works in the meat sector.
One of the reasons why our society generally condemns the killing of animals for bullfighting or trophy hunting, but not the killing of animals for food, probably has a lot to do with fact that most of us are not involved in the former but we are in the latter. It doesn’t matter to most of us if bullfights and bullfighters are morally frowned upon or even outlawed – it doesn’t affect us because we’re not participating. It’s easy, in other words, to be against them. Eating meat, on the other hand, is something that most of us do any day. We are steakholders (pun intended).
Your steak, your pork chops, your chicken nugget, your sausages… there’s a lot at stake here. Your habits get in the way, and they prevent you from thinking straight about what you eat. However rationally and objectively you think you are considering all of this, the meat you love so much works a bit like alcohol: it has an inebriating effect on your reasoning powers. As a professor of mine once said: “One quick way to drive people furious and incapable of reasonable thought is to start a conversation about their habit of eating meat.”
Maybe that’s not the case for you. But still. Maybe you say the killing of animals is fine because in nature animals kill each other too (as if we are as limited in our choices as other animals are). Maybe you say that we have always eaten animals (as if that is a moral argument). Maybe you would suggest that animals can be killed because they have no idea of their own identity or their future (as if all people have that). Maybe you argue that many people would lose their job if we massively stopped eating meat (as if the economy always has to have the final word). Maybe you believe that our first concern should go be with human suffering (as if not eating meat would take away part of your attention or compassion for people). Maybe you only eat “humane meat” (as if such a thing exists). Maybe you say that nobody should tell you what to eat (as if in this you are not influenced by your parents, your culture, your housemates, advertisements, or the offer and discounts in your supermarket).
During the first half of my life, I loved to eat meat, and ate lots of it. From experience I know that quitting meat is not easy for most people – especially men. But I do believe that as a society we are moving in that direction. Our ethics evolve. Yesterday we did things that we don’t approve of today. Today we maintain practises that will be frowned upon tomorrow. This is the way it will go with killing animals for food. Till the day comes when psychologists and sociologists will try to explain in long papers how we could ever do to animals what we are doing today, for gustatory pleasure. They will wonder how it was possible at all that decent people, who sought to improve the world, who had the cognitive and moral apparatus to choose and to do the good – and who often did that – could just ignore who was on their dinner plate, and how he or she got there.
Because we want to keep eating meat, we refuse to seriously think about our steak, we avoid the confrontation and we make sure that the link between meat and the animal behind it is as vague as possible. I dare ask you to finally start taking animals seriously, and to begin to see animals as one of the many oppressed groups that we can still find in our society today. With more than 65 billion victims a year (sea animals not included), it is a very large group that deserves our attention and our compassion.
I dare to ask you to finally start to think about our relationship to farmed animals, in the same way as you think about other important issues: with your head instead of with your stomach.