Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nick Cooney Q3: Personal Views vs Real Change

I, too, spent a number of years in the "do something, do anything" mindset. Another shortcoming of mine in previous years was my insistence in promoting a “vegan first, vegan only” message, with the rationalization being that only veganism was the full statement against all exploitation.

In retrospect, though, I was more concerned with promoting my personal views, rather than doing the most good for the animals. Or in terms of Jack Norris’ comment, “We want a vegan world, not a vegan club,” I wanted an exclusive vegan club of only those fully committed and indoctrinated.

You cover the implications of this attitude in terms of booklet titles here, as well as ways the relevant research indicates we can be more effective. Can you discuss other areas where people’s personal dogma and sense of identity / self-worth get in the way of doing the most good for the animals, as well as how we can use the available research to get past our personal beliefs and desires?

We might think that the only reason we are animal advocates is because we altruistically want to help animals, but that's not true. Our motivation is probably in part a desire to express ourselves; a desire to feel a sense of belonging (by working with or talking to like-minded people); and a desire to feel good about ourselves. All of these things are an important part of being a happy, healthy person. But there are times when they can conflict with doing the most good for animals.

Take self-expression, for example. Just expressing our opinions - be it in a letter to a congressperson, shouting at a protest, typing on a blog, or by passing out a booklet- doesn't in and of itself magically create change for animals. Some methods do create real-world change, some methods do very little. So we have to ask ourselves, is our goal to just voice our opinion in the way we find most enjoyable? Or is it to create the most real-world change?

Our desire to express ourselves can also affect the physical appearance and style of dress we choose. There is plenty of research documenting how our appearance impacts our persuasiveness. Studies have found for example that people who look attractive (by conventional standards of beauty) are paid more, more likely to be elected to political office than less-attractive candidates, get off with lighter sentences in court, are more likely to get petition signatures when petitioning, are more likely to receive help when they ask for it, etc. Studies have also found that people are more likely to help, believe, and work with those who look similar to them. Therefore if we dress and look like our target audience, and try to appear more conventionally attractive, we'll be more effective in our animal advocacy work. Here again we see a conflict: do I as an advocate for animals dress and look the way I want to because I enjoy that form of self-expression; or do I dress and look in the way that's going to help the most animals? Boil it down and you're really asking yourself, "Is being able to look the way I prefer to look worth the lives of thousands of animals?"

Let me also address the desire to feel good about ourselves. As you note, rigid adherence to vegan dogma and a desire for personal purity will interfere with our ability to create actual change for animals. There are a small number of animal advocates who are opposed to any form of advocacy that doesn't have what they consider to be a strict vegan message. These folks think, for example that using the term "vegetarian" in outreach materials is bad, that welfare laws protecting millions of animals are bad, that encouraging people to reduce meat consumption is bad, etc.

"Veganism," they argue, "has to be the moral baseline. If we advocate for anything less, the public will become complacent and they'll think it's okay to continue eating animal products as long as they eat less, or eat free-range."

This is a hollow argument on a number of levels. For one thing, it doesn't even stand up to its own internal logic. Consider the fact that 120 million animals are killed by our cars each year, 40 million by our cell phone towers, and at bare minimum 60 million die a slow death of pesticide poisoning from our non-organic food crops (these numbers are for the US). Moreover, billions of animals won't get to even be born because of our population growth and our consumerism which poisons the environment. Someone on the next rung up the purity ladder could say, "Veganism, not driving, not using a cell phone, eating only organic food, not reproducing, and buying virtually nothing has to be the moral baseline. If we advocate anything less - such as just veganism - the public will become complacent and they'll think it's okay to continue killing animals and denying their ability to live just so as long as they aren't eating animal products."

Leaving that internal contradiction aside, psychology and sociology research from the past fifty years makes clear that having flexibility in our advocacy - as opposed to taking a "vegan or nothing" approach - will make us more effective. For example, the research is very clear that if we want people to make a large change, we'll usually be more successful by first getting them to agree to a smaller change and then later encouraging them to make the larger change. This is called getting our "foot in the door," and a meta-analysis of over 900 studies found that by getting our foot in the door first with a smaller request, we'll be overall about 15% more effective at getting people to agree to our larger goal, such as going vegan.

Communication researchers have also widely studied what they call "message discrepancy," which is how different a speaker's message is from the audience's current belief. Researchers are interested in finding out which message will create the most attitude and behavior change in an audience: a message that is only slightly different than the audience's current belief, a message that is moderately different than their current belief, or a message that is extremely different than their current belief. In a nutshell, it is the moderately different messages that researchers have found create the most attitude and behavior change. Suggestions like "have a meatless meal once a week" might be too minimal, and encouragements like "you should go vegan" are too different from what the general public currently does to create a lot of behavior change. A message somewhere in the middle of these should be more effective, create more change in people's diets, and thereby help more farmed animals.

Lastly, research on minority influence has found that those holding a minority opinion are less effective in persuading the public to agree with them if they hold a completely rigid viewpoint. Having some flexibility, and occasionally agreeing with the majority, makes those with a minority opinion more successful in spreading their belief. As we vegans are greatly in the minority, this lesson certainly applies to us and our work.

So again, and in summary, we face that question: is our goal as animal advocates to express ourselves as accurately as possible, and to feel good about our purity of message? Or is our goal to change the public's behavior as much as possible, and consequently help as many animals as possible? The research record makes clear that in general we can't have both.