Thursday, April 21, 2011

Question Thursday: Availability Bias

In my experience, the typical response to the horrors of factory farming is to pursue reform (happy meat) rather than elimination (veganism). Companies are capitalizing on this and the "humane" sector is rapidly growing. Does VO have plans to modify its booklets to more aggressively address so-called "humane" animal products?

This is a great question.

The first aspect of this is “happy meat.” Obviously, there are people who do stop supporting factory farms and eat “sustainable” meat.

But many vegans read too much into this. We suffer from availability bias*. The reality, though, is that “happy meat” is an absolutely miniscule market for rich, over-educated Americans.

Sadly, rich, over-educated people are vastly, vastly overrepresented in the media! And people who excuse eating animals, at any level, are given even more endless media coverage by their fellow elites.

Of course, I understand the extreme frustration of seeing all this glorification of eating animals. In general, though, we vegans vastly overreact to it, spending an extremely disproportionate amount of our limited time and our limited emotional resources arguing with and being angry at people eating / promoting “happy meat.”

There are better uses of our limited time and resources.

Of course it is disappointing when people don't go vegan when they hear our message, or when someone stops being vegetarian and eats animals again. But let me tell you from long experience – this isn’t because of the presence of “happy meat.”

Obviously, it has always been the case that the vast majority of people don't change when they learn the case for vegetarianism. And there have been failed vegetarians ever since there have been vegetarians. One survey showed more former vegetarians in the UK than actual vegetarians.

Similarly, when he spent two years leafleting across the country nearly 20 years ago, Jack felt he met more former vegetarians than current vegetarians. It wasn’t because of Pollan or Bittman or Polyface or Whole Foods.

It was because they didn’t feel healthy as a vegetarian.

This trend continues today – just Google “failed vegetarian” or “failed vegan.” The internet gives these people a loud megaphone, and meat-eaters give them endless attention.

So we vegans suffer from availability bias regarding the prevalence of failed vegetarians. We hear from every single "happy meat" eater, and extrapolate this to the general population. (Please see this article for a fuller discussion.)

But as Jack found, there is a real problem here: that many buy into the vegan propaganda and don’t learn honest and thorough nutrition. This leads to many people going vegetarian with unrealistic expectations (of how easy it will be, of the health benefits they will immediately experience, etc.).

That’s why Jack went back to school to be an RD, and why he created www.veganhealth.orgwe can do better.

The other aspect of your question is the nature of change, in both an individual and in society (again, discussed further here). 

We would, of course, love to design a booklet that persuaded everyone to change, and only change right to being vegan. But real change is rarely quick or linear. We owe it to the animals to give up our fantasy of the perfect, and do the best possible work in the real world.

Or, to paraphrase MLK, the arc of history is long and jagged, but ultimately bends towards justice. We should spend more time bending, rather than despairing over the hiccups.

(*Availability bias also has applicability in the vegan community, too, where the loudest, most outspoken – or obnoxious – person seems to represent all vegans.

And, of course, the meat-eating media love to promote the angriest, most extreme, obsessive, fanatical vegan as the community’s voice.

We should be aware of this, and try to counter it as best we can.)