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

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.

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.


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.

Finding out what works

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

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

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

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

picture (c) Compassationate Action for Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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









Sugarcoating, straight up or… adaptive?

My last post (you are not your audience) was about trying to get to know your audience, and adapting your message to what you know is interesting to them. Some people interpret this as me saying you should always be very gentle and even kind of sugarcoat your message. One person replied to the post as follows:

“Personally I prefer a Yourofsky-esque method. Be bluntly honest, do not fluff it up. Some people won’t like it but those generally will be the people coming in to it with a closed mind.”


This comment got a lot of likes. A lot of people, I think, love to be blunt (and hate sugarcoating). That’s an interesting phenomenon that I’d like to investigate at some point, but right now, I want to talk about something else: my point is not that people make a once-and-forever choice between a gentle approach and an in your face approach. Rather, I suggest that you are adaptive: you have the ability to change your approach according to what you think your audience likes.

When you don’t know what your audience likes, or when your audience is so big that there might be many different sorts of people (I call it broadcasting, as opposed to one on one or little group conversations), then I think it is good to use the approach that we have reason to believe works for the biggest number of people. You have to look for the lowest common denominator, as it were. For that we have to look at research. I’ll give an overview in a future post – for now I can recommend chapters 14 and 15 in Nick Cooney’s Veganomics. But I’m pretty confident that in general, when you go in blind and have to choose between a gentle (even sugarcoating) or an in your face message, the soft approach is the safer and more effective option. You have to take into account that you are bringing a very uncomfortable story, that has big consequences if people take it serously. Read more about a very recent study explaining how people just don’t want to know.

So: if you know enough about the person or people you are talking to, adapt your approach to what you know is a fit for them. If you don’t know, and/or if the audience is heterogeneous, I believe it’s best to err on the side of caution.



What can we learn from research on ex-vegetarians?

Recent, extensive research by the Faunalytics (they are celebrating 15 years, go support them!) has indicated that in the US, only one in five new vegetarians or vegans maintains the diet. Put another way, 84% of vegetarians/vegans revert back to eating meat or other animal products.

First of all, while this may seem appalling news at first sight, I think it is actually not. It means that there is a much bigger potential for veg*ism than the few percentages we have right now. It means that so many more people have considered or may consider going veg*n. It means that if we manage to take some barriers away, there is enormous growth potential for the movement. Look at it like this: if all people who started on a veg*n diet, stuck to it, we would already have the necessary critical mass!

Secondly, about motivations.The fact that current vegetarians check “animal protection” as reason to be vegetarian a lot more than ex-vegetarians (68% vs 27%) makes some people (among whom Matt Ball) conclude that “altruistic” reasons provide the most “staying power”. Health as motivator in particular, according to this interpretation, would hence not be a good argument to communicate about in our outreach. I think this is might be a wrong conclusion to take away from the research. At the very least, I’d like to offer an alternative interpretation.

If we want veg*ism to have more staying power, it is undoubtedly beneficial to make sure people have solid motivations, which make them less likely to stray from their vegan path. Ethical motivations, in that sense, seem more solid. And virtually the only reason to consistently stick to a vegetarian/vegan diet, is because one believes animals shouldn’t be eaten (any other argument would have no problem with at least a very low consumption of animal products). However, there are different ways of making it easier for veg*ns to stay veg*n. One of them is increasing their motivation, another one is tackling the environment in which they move. Sure, if we can add one or two veg*ns in their environment (especially in their family or among their colleagues) that will help. But making the environment generally more understanding and more accommodating to veg*ns doesn’t require that they become veg*n themselves, and is probably a much faster way. And for that – to make veg*ism more mainstream –  health seems to be a motivator that can convince more people.

Some other doubts I have about the interpretation that HRC research tells us we should focus on ethical motivations, particularly animals:

  • if I’m correct, we cannot interpret from the data what people’s initial motivation was for going veg, vs. what their present motivation is. It may very well be (as indeed some research seems to indicate) that many people evolve from health motivations to ethical motivations. What if health motivations and health communication would be more suitable to attract people initially? If this were the case, the argument for focusing on animals in all our communication doesn’t hold up. On the contrary.
  • there may be a kind of self selection in the respondents at work, where ethically (esp. animal rights) motivated people are more easily drawn to respond, and where they might be more prone to give certain answers
  • we need also to take into account if recidivists go back to eating meat like before, or whether they may be still mostly veg*n, say eating veg like 6 days a week. Big masses of people like that make a big difference. Even if health vegetarians wouldn’t stick to their diet consistently but stuck mostly to it, and we could easily “make” more health vegetarians, this would be an argument in favor of health communication. Likewise, to get a good idea of everything, we would need the years that people have been veg*n into account.
  • a real cause for concern would be, however, that ex veg*ns become bad spokespeople for veg*ism

It’s all good and well to say that people should be motivated by ethical reasons, but that doesn’t mean they easily will be. It seems to me common sense – and is repeated in much of the change literature I come across – that it is more productive to formulate our message in a way that it connects to values that people already have (health, environment), instead of trying to get them adopt the values we would like them to have. We will make faster progress mainstreaming the veg*n idea, without necessarily bumping up the number of vegans, but drastically reducing meat consumption and increasing veg*n offers in restaurants and stores. The change in society this will cause will make it easier for everyone to be a full time veg*n.

One of the things I see being repeated again, and which I think is a big mistake, is the emphasis on the number of veg*ns, rather than on the number of veg*n meals being eaten. The second is a lot more important than the former, not only because in absolute numbers it can have a bigger effect on animal suffering, but also because in this stage in the history of our movement –  it is probably both easier and more beneficial to rapidly increase the number of veg*n meals being eaten than the number of veg*ns. This is the incrementalism that HRC also stresses in their conclusions: “the latest findings once again show that a message focused on reduction instead of elimination of animal products may be more effective to create an overall decline in animal product consumption.”

Something else I was very happy to read in HRC’s conclusions was the importance of our attention to the how. I think veg activism should focus on facilitation and lowering the barriers, rather than on convincing people why they should be veg*n.

Another lesson, in my humble opinion is: preaching to the choir is not to be underestimated. Organizing potlucks among vegans is sometimes frowned upon by ‘real’ activists who are out there in the streets. I think these results indicate something else. Giving each other support is majorly important.

In any case, we can not be in denial. I’ve seen animal rights activists be very quick to respond with statements like: we know better, for us it’s not a phase. Of course it’s not a phase for some, but apparently for a majority, it is. Let’s take away the barriers.