Making vegan the new normal: change the default option

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

vegan default

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

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

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

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

Image source

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


13 thoughts on “Making vegan the new normal: change the default option

  1. This is possibly a good way to get veganism into situations where there is already some sympathy. I would like to make sure “nudges” have a direction and momentum. Meatless Monday, when it becomes institutionalized as in the Whole Foods Market here in the US (fixed price for a container of vegan food regardless of weight) is a nudge without momentum, kind of a dead end. At best it brings vegans into the store on Mondays. If instead, Whole Foods gave a significant discount to vegan choices EVERY DAY, that would, in my mind be effective. The impact on the WF bottom line would be minimal or non-existent.

    In your example, if the next step was to default to vegan food every day once the Thursday program was popularized, that would be an effective incentive.

        1. lol, you tell me 🙂
          i mean, i think you may be expecting or demanding too much. i think it’s enough for many people to get acquainted with veg food one day a week, and thus cross the treshold, where the unknown becomes the known (all provided the food they eat is tasty). so i wouldn’t say the whole food thing is a dead end.

  2. Awesome stuff! Problem I find is, though, that people who are in charge of choice architecture in institutions tend not to be interested in the cause beforehand. How can you influence those in power to make the effort to redesign their systems?

    1. Of course not all decision makers are interested in these things, but by showing that there is still freedom of choice, and talking about the different motivations for meat reduction according to what is relevant for them (and showing how policy makers can paint achieve their own goals by implementing this) will get you a lot fidget than the standard go vegan approach.

  3. I believe the “go vegan” approach applies more to individuals than institutions. Most institutions do not have a “moral” identity and mainly serve their constituents. Some are (churches?), but most are not cultural leaders. Since “nutrition” is considered science and in that sense, amoral, it may be easier to push them based upon their responsibility to provide a healthy environment for their constituents (students, employees). I could probably convince the cafeteria manager where I work to include vegan options based upon the scientific consensus.

    1. yes, it’s good to distinguish between a one on one/private approach on the one hand, and an institutional/public approach on the other hand (though it seems not everyone can do that 🙂 )

  4. common-sense approach based upon a knowledge of human behavior change. Choices must come from within. No one will become vegan because we tell them they should. We can be, at best, compassionate catalysts. Would be great to have you in the Facebook page, Vega Ripple Effect.

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