Making vegan the new normal: change the default option

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)


Slow opinion

You know all this talk about doing slowing down? I’m not really that much of a fan. At least not for changemakers, people who want to make the world a better place. They’re the people who need to be fast and productive. When we’re talking about commercial occupations, I’m all in favor of taking it slower. “Speed is irrelevant,” Gandhi said, “if you’re going in the wrong direction.” Good causes, non profit organisations, changemakers, however, are usually going in the right direction. So godspeed to them, and not too much of that slowing down stuff.

However, there’s one area where I usually believe that being fast is almost always wrong: forming opinions. Webforums, social media – where it takes a second to put a comment or a sneer – contribute to “fast opinion”. So it’s time for a new movement: after slow food and slow everything, allow me to introduce slow opinion.

Slow opinionists are aware of the complexity of life and today’s society. That’s why they refuse to form an opinion before they have thought things through and are well informed.

But slow opinion is about more than deep thinking and informing oneself. It’s also about empathy. Slow opinionists wonder: how would it be to be in that person’s shoes? What are the arguments that are important for them? In what position are they? Could they maybe have a good reason to say, write or do this? What, in this discussion do I not know?
An advantage of slow opinion – maybe the biggest one – is that the judging, condemning and offending of others is reduced to a minimum. Slow opinion is to be applied towards almost everything and everybody, including politicians and other celebrities. They are people too.

Slow opinion also implies that there can be respect for the fact that someone does not right away want to take a decision, because they lack information, or have not had time enough to think about the matter. Such a suspension of opinion should not be seen as dragging your feet, weakness or a lack of intelligence, but needs to be interpreted as some sort of maturation process that is necessary to come to a qualitative decision or a sound opinion. Neither can this slowness be seen as unjustified neutrality or the refusal to take a position (even though the latter can be honorable in itself). This also applies when we’re talking about apparently obvious topics. Everyone can think of examples for themselves, but in my circles, for instance, it is obvious to be anti-GMO, to condemn certain political parties and politicians, to be anti-religious, etc. Slow opinion applies to any question to which progressives believe they have already found the answer ages ago, and where it seems a taboo to even dare think about or doubt the question.

Slow opinion also does not equal some things. It’s not the same as endless talking and meeting. And it doesn’t need to be applied in all circumstances. There are moments when a fast opinion is crucial, and it’s the only thing we can do. And I understand there’s places where our passion or expertise will lead us to fast opinion.

Slow opinion has its downsides. The biggest danger is so-called analysis paralysis: thinking too hard, trying to take too many things into account and hence not coming to a conclusion, or only way too late. It’s a great way to annoy people, and it will block or delay every process.

But when slow opinion is done well, it’s great. Imagine that everyone, before saying or writing something, takes slow opinion to heart. Imagine people who, participating in discussions, would not say yes or no too fast. Imagine people who give their emotions the right place, who want to think rationally, objectively, logically before coming to a conclusion. People who want to be informed and who say: “let me think about that, I’ll get back to you”. People who ask: “do you have a good article about that which I can read first?” People who are honest towards themselves and who are willing to change their minds. People who don’t just posit things but also ask questions. And when they do posit things, it would be with an “in my humble opinion” here and there, which is just not for show but heartfelt.

I believe the vegan movement can benefit a lot from slow opinion and deep thinking. It would help us to be less judgmental, of people both on our side as well as the other side of the fence. And it would help avoid the dogma that’s inherent in a big part of our movement and help us be open to new ideas.