Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nick Cooney Q4: Lessons Learned and Best Tools

Given everything you’ve learned in your research, how has your activism changed? What tools have found most effective at persuading people to change their views and habits?

The biggest lesson that I've learned from my research is to never assume I know what type of message is going to work best in getting people to make a change (like going vegetarian or vegan). People - including all of us animal advocates - think and behave in a lot of really illogical ways. Writing Change of Heart helped me see some of the patterns, which has already come in handy in making The Humane League's outreach work more effective.

The most important thing an animal advocate can do to be as effective as possible is to find the issues and approaches where they can create the most change for animals for the smallest amount of time and money invested. Getting to that point means working through some of the internal psychological barriers we've talked about already. It also means paying attention to what a variety of groups and individual activists are doing, and considering the number of animals that each person and each group's work is helping. Overall, I think one of the most effective things we can be doing is getting both information and - very importantly - resources on how to make a change into people's hands, on their computer screens, and so forth. I think that VO's booklets; vegetarian starter kits; and videos like MFA's new Farm to Fridge are some of the most powerful tools we animal advocates have for changing individual behavior.

That being said, it's important that in these types of materials and in talking with people we use the messages that will most effectively persuade people to make a change. That's where Change of Heart comes in. The tools I talk about in the book can make us 10, 20, maybe 30% more effective in the work that we're doing (which will mean many lives spared). To give an example, social norms messages - where we essentially say "most people/lots of people are doing this, so you should too" - are extremely powerful. Research has found that in many cases they are more powerful than direct advocacy messages (such as "please recycle to protect the environment", etc.). For your summer outreach at the Warped Tour, Vegan Outreach now prints special booklets that feature popular vegetarian musicians on the front and back cover. As far as I understand, using this social norms message on the cover - as opposed to leading off with a "protect animals from cruelty message" - has resulted in a lot more Guide To Cruelty Free Eating requests and likely many more vegetarians created. THL is also in the process (and admittedly we're late to the game on this) of getting Facebook like buttons on our vegetarian resource websites, both to help spread the word and also to use the power of social norms to help spread vegetarianism on Facebook ("Oh look, Betty just ordered a vegetarian starter kit. I guess vegetarianism is becoming more popular, maybe I should get one too.")

Getting commitments from people is another very powerful tool. I saw Rory Freedman (co-author of Skinny Bitch, right) speak once and at the end she asked any non-veg members of the audience to make a "pinkie pledge" then and there to try going veg or vegan for a month. On the surface that may seem kind of silly, but in fact there's a ton of research that makes clear that getting these sort of commitments - be they verbal, written, public, or group commitments - makes people much more likely to follow through on a behavior change. So I'm trying to find ways to work that into my outreach work more. One example is that we're working with an app developer (Symbiotic Software - check out their animal advocacy apps already on the market, all free) to create a vegetarian starter kit app, and the first thing it will do is encourage the user to make some type of pledge for how often they will try eating veg.

One last example for now: HSUS and Farm Sanctuary (along with other groups) just launched their ballot initiative to ban battery cages, veal crates and gestation crates in Washington State. With previous ballot initiatives their campaign sites included a "Fact vs. Myth" page to counter industry group talking points about why a ban on these practices would be bad. However research suggests that these types of presentations often lead the public to incorrectly remember a number of the false statements as true. So with this current initiative, they've switched over to a FAQ page ( that simply gives the facts and chooses not to repeat the myths, even to dispel them. A switch like this certainly isn't going to make or break their ballot initiative, but this very simple switch in approach should make more Washingtonians better informed about the facts of the issue.