The Social Psychology of Veganism – Cognitive Priming

Cognitive Priming for Positive Outcomes

Cognitive priming refers to the process of manipulating an audience’s interpretation of information. Professors, for instance, might make subtle hints to their students about positive experiences in the classroom hoping that students will score them higher on end-of-term evaluations. Realtors may bake cookies in a home for sale for a nostalgic, lived-in atmosphere, hoping to encourage would-be buyers to imagine themselves buying and living in the home. Comedians and musicians rely on opening acts to get audiences jazzed about the main event.

With cognitive priming, agents not only allow for the manipulation of new information. Priming can also improve the recollection of memories (Rholes et al. 1987). Vegan activists can, therefore, manipulate the interpretation of campaigns by cognitively priming audiences beforehand. Facilitating good moods can assist with this. Vegans can even prime others to experience and remember vegan food more positively by priming beforehand.

Cognitive Priming for Negative Outcomes

Unfortunately, priming works both ways. People can be primed toward the negative, too. For instance, researchers in one study exposed an experimental group to aggressive media (Bushman 1998). After the exposure, researchers asked participants to come up with word associations in a seemingly unrelated lexicon task. The participants exposed to the violent media were more likely to come up with violent word associations than those in the control group.

The priming effect acts as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Persons primed to enter a mindset of positivity or negativity are more likely to experience an event or information respectively.

For vegan campaigners, then, their success may be limited should they organize protests or tablings in spaces where audiences have been primed with aggression. For instance, anti-hunt disruptions may be important for aiding wounded Nonhuman Animals and drawing attention to their oppression, but they are less likely to persuade audiences to respond positively to veganism having already been aggressively primed by the festivities.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Prime audiences to interpret and remember vegan ideas and food positively
  • Avoid campaigning in spaces where audiences have already been primed with aggression

References

Bushman, B. 1998. “Priming Effects of Media Violence on the Accessibility of Aggressive Constructs in Memory.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24 (5): 537-545.

Rholes, W., J. Riskind, and J. Lane. 1987. “Emotional states and memory biases: Effects of cognitive priming and mood.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52 (1): 91-99.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – The Illusion of Transparency

What is the Illusion of Transparency?

The illusion of transparency refers to the mistaken assumption that others can read our internal states quite easily. Humans, as social animals, are quite good at reading the body language and facial expressions of others. However, there are limitations to this ability.

Perhaps the tendency to assume that our inner state is quite visible to the outside world can be traced to self-centered individualism of Western culture. Indeed, this inhibiting tendency among humans is picked up in the best-selling self-help book, The Four Agreements (Ruiz 1997). For instance, the book’s advice not to take things personally or make assumptions speaks to the illusion of transparency.

How Can This Illusion Hinder?

Because empathy and identification are so important for encouraging helping and other prosocial behaviors, this illusion of transparency can be prohibitive (Gilovich et al. 1998). Vegan activists, for instance, may bemoan why so many humans who witness the oppression of other animals can remain unmoved. This could be a case of activists falling for the illusion of transparency. Specifically, they may be assuming that the inner states of Nonhuman Animals are blatant to audiences. By actively encouraging identification and prosocial responses, activists may be more successful than by simply relying on the process of bearing witness to motivate behavior change.

How Can This Illusion Help?

Although this illusion can be prohibitive, it can also be encouraging. For instance, activists can harness awareness to this illusion to increase self-confidence when advocating for other animals. Researchers find that the illusion of transparency, if acknowledged, can be overcome. Indeed, this can be especially helpful for those challenged with social anxiety (Savitsky and Gilovich 2003). By keeping in mind that any nervousness or discomfort that is internally felt is not likely to be externally observed, activists might find themselves more willing to engage the public.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Do not rely on the assumption that nonhuman suffering is apparent to audiences
  • Gain confidence with the knowledge that tumultuous internal states experienced when speaking publicly are not so readily apparent

References

Gilovich, T., K. Savitsky, V. Medvec. 1998. “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Others’ Ability to Read One’s Emotional States.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75 (2): 332-346.

Ruiz, D. 1997. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. San Rafael, CA: Amber Allen Publishing.

Savitsky, K. and T. Gilovich. 2003. “The Illusion of Transparency and the Alleviation of Speech Anxiety.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 39 (6): 618-625.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Prosocial Media Modeling

Social psychological research conducted in the 1970s finds that children exposed to prosocial programs like Sesame Street significantly increased their prosocial behaviors. This was especially true of those children with low baseline prosocial tendencies (Coates et al. 1976). Researchers have also uncovered this relationship between prosocial media and prosocial behavior among college students who had played prosocial video games (Anderson et al. 2009). Music can tap into this effect as well (Greitemeyer 2009).

Vegan activists have long relied on media to morally shock audiences or guilt them into action with graphic depictions of suffering. Social psychological research, however, suggests that focusing on happy feelings and prosociality may be the key to persuasion. The development of positive vegan media that more cheerfully encourages prosociality toward other animals may be a fruitful strategy.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Develop and promote film, video games, and other mediums which model prosocial behaviors toward other animals

References

Anderson, C., S. Yukawa, N. Ihori, M. Saleem, L. Ming, A. Shibuya, A. Liau, A. Khoo, B. Bushman, L. Huesmann, and A. Sakamoto. 2009. “The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence From Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35 (6): 752-763.

Coates, B., H. Pusser, and I. Goodman. 1976. “The Influence of ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ on Children’s Social Behavior in the Preschool.” Child Development 47 (1): 138-144.

Greitemeyer, T. 2009. “Effects of Songs with Prosocial Lyrics on Prosocial Thoughts, Affect, and Behavior.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (1): 186-190.


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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Vividness Doesn’t Persuade

Frequently, social psychological research refutes what we take to be common sense when it comes to behavioral motivation and attitude formation. This is certainly the case with presentation vividness. Although it is easy to assume that creating a vivid presentation will better persuade audiences, research does not especially support the idea (Collins and Taylor 1986).

Why? Too much vividness can actually distract from the message (Guadagno et al. 2011). If there is a lot of glitz and glamour in a PowerPoint presentation, for instance, viewers are more likely to hone in on the slideshow imagery and tune out the speaker.

Graphic images can fall into this trap as well. The vegan movement particularly relies on vivid imagery to persuade viewers to support nonhuman liberation, but, given that the focus on suffering can be off-putting to potential supporters, it would perhaps be more prudent to utilize less vivid approaches.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Opt for substance over vividness
  • Employ graphic images and glitzy presentations with caution
  • Pallid persuasion efforts are only slightly less persuasive than vivid ones

References

Collins, R. and S. Taylor. 1986. “The Vividness Effect: Elusive or Illusory?Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 24: 1-18.

Guadagno, R., K. Rhoads, and B. Sagarin. 2011. “Figural Vividness and Persuasion: Capturing the ‘Elusive’ Vividness Effect.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37 (5): 626-638.

 


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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Identification Leads to Empathy

What is Empathy?

Empathy is a psychological concern for with others made possible by a vicarious experience of others’ experiences. It is most easily achieved when a person can identify with those in need. Identification leads to empathy when the persons being empathized with are more “real” to the observer. This is why, for instance, one might feel more empathetic to a neighbor whose home is destroyed by fire than to a person on the other side of the world who experienced the same tragedy. Large numbers of persons suffering can also create a collapse of compassion since the magnitude of empathy required to accommodate mass suffering can appear too unrealistic or bearable (Camerson and Payne 2011).

Manipulating Empathy

Neuroscientists have actually been able to measure empathy in the brains of research participants. When a person imagines themselves suffering and when they imagine someone else suffering, the same areas of the brain are activated. Researchers have also found that sharing the context of the suffering with participants allows the participants to regulate their experience of empathy (Lamm et al. 2007). That is, by letting participants know that everything was okay in the end, their empathetic concern for the other was lessened. Alternatively, by indicating that the suffering of the other continues, participants’ empathetic concern was greater. Furthermore, when researchers actively encouraged participants to really focus on the suffering of others, empathy increased.

Empathizing with Other Animals

This need for identification can complicate vegan activism given that speciesism creates a cultural emphasis on human distinction from other animals. Campaigns can encourage empathy by pointing to the individual Nonhuman Animals in the lives of audience members, as individuals are easier to identify with. What about other species? If this theory is correct, virtual reality campaigns that allow audiences to take the perspective of Nonhuman Animals in factory farms should also encourage identification.

Lastly, regardless of the campaign tactic, activists can trigger empathy by actively encouraging it and by contextualizing the experiences of other animals. It would be easy for audiences to manage their empathetic concern by rationalizing that the Nonhuman Animals depicted in the images they bear witness to are no longer suffering. Reminding audiences that this suffering is systemic and ongoing may undercut their ability to manage their empathy in such a way that is not conducive to behavior change.

Although empathy can easily be manipulated in audiences, other social psychological research has suggested that unhappy feelings and negativity can reduce the propensity to help. Therefore, empathy manipulation should be used with caution.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Highlight individual connections to Nonhuman Animals
  • Allow audience members to experience what it is like to be a Nonhuman Animal
  • Actively encourage audiences to empathize
  • Emphasize the context of nonhuman suffering and its ongoing, unrelenting nature

References

Cameron, C. and B. Payne. 2011. “Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100 (1): 1-15.

Lamm, C., C. Batson, and J. Decety. 2007. “The Neural Substrate of Human Empathy: Effects of Perspective-taking and Cognitive Appraisal.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 19 (1): 42-58.


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Happy People are Helping People

A number of variables can induce prosocial, helping behaviors. Mood is one such variable. According to the social psychological research, happy people are helpful people (Salovey et al. 1991). Folks may wish to help in order to get happy or to stay happy. Feeling good motivates a desire to spread that goodness. It can also increase positive thinking and self-esteem, which is further conducive to wanting to help.

Researchers have even found that inserting happy people into social situations can increase the propensity for people to be persuaded (Forgas and East 2008). Campaigners who employ a chipper mood themselves can also motivate others to be helpful.

Vegan activists can easily encourage constituents to be helpful to Nonhuman Animals by framing their campaigns with positivity and cheerfulness. The typical vegan campaigning which spotlights suffering and violence might actually discourage helping.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Keep a positive attitude
  • Insert chipper confederates into vegan protests and events
  • Frame campaigns so as to solicit happiness
  • Avoid negative, unmotivating themes of suffering

References

Forgas, J. and R. East. 2008. “On Being Happy and Gullible: Mood Effects on Skepticism and the Detection of Deception.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (5): 1362-1367.

Salovey, P., Mayer, J., and Rosenhan, D. 1991. “Mood and Helping: Mood as a Motivator of Helping and Helping as a Regulator of Mood.” Review of Personality and Social Psychology 12: 215-237.

 


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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Group Size and Aggression

Emotions in Society

Although emotions are individually experienced, they are often socially triggered. Emotions link humans with other humans (and other animals). This allows for important bonding, empathy, and cooperation.

Social movements find that emotions are very important for mobilizing protest, too (Jasper 1998). These sorts of emotions can include joy, excitement, fear, and even aggression. For activists interested in nurturing peace, it is worth understanding the mechanics of emotion in social spaces. This is particularly so when it comes to aggression since aggression can undermine social justice efforts.

Group Size and Aggression

Social movements do not only focus on the emotions of their own activists. They must also concern themselves with the emotions of constituents and countermovement participants. Just as joy or frustration may motivate folks into collective action, anger or aggression can manifest as resistance in the public. Essentially, in group settings, a mob-like effect can take hold as the presence of more people can increase aggressive tendencies (Mullen 1986). This explains aggression in gangs as well as in lynch mobs.

Protests that are intended to confront large groups of people could easily trigger this group-level aggression. This is why, for instance, the Charlottesville hate march so easily spiraled into aggressive conflict. Emotions are easily aroused by the presence of others. More importantly, the presence of others allows for the diffusion of responsibility.

Antisocial tendencies can, ironically, spike in social situations. Vegan protests that do not take into consideration the relationship between group size and aggression could run into trouble. Researchers find that, when prompted, individuals are much less likely to react with aggression than groups (Gaebelein and Mander 1978). Why? They feel they are personally responsible for any negative consequences.

Groups and Speciesism

The social psychological tendency for aggression to spike in group settings is also relevant to the wellbeing of Nonhuman Animals. Excessive violence against other animals in gruesome rituals such as “bullfighting,” “cockfighting,” “bearbaiting,” and “dogfighting,” for instance, is predictable based on the large presence of humans.

The power of groups on emotive, anti-social behavior can also be observed in shared food rituals (such as barbeques), entertainment (such as “horseracing”), and science (such as vivisection). Groups allow for the diffusion of responsibility. Groups also create a shared emotional experience that bonds the individual to the group and their behavior.

In addition to tailoring vegan protest to avoid confrontations with a group of emotionally-charged humans, vegans should tailor campaigns to help Nonhuman Animals avoid aggressive human groups as well. Vegan strategies that trigger social responsibility will be more successful than strategies that allow for constituents to diffuse responsibility amid the group.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Avoid large groups of people as protest targets to avoid mob-like response
  • The presence of large groups can be dangerous to Nonhuman Animals

References

Gaebelein, J. and A. Mander. 1978. “Consequences for Targets of Aggression as a Function of Aggressor and Instigator roles: Three Experiments.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 4 (3): 465-468.

Jasper, J. 1998. “The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions In and Around Social Movements.” Sociological Forum 13 (3): 397-424.

Mullen, B. 1986. “Atrocity as a Function of Lynch Mob Composition.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 12 (2): 187-197.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Egoism and Helping

Why Help?

What motivates people to help? Is it altruism, peer pressure, legal force, or simply egoism? The motivations for prosocial behavior are numerous, but generally, it behooves humans, a social species, to help. And so help we do. Altruism is useful for social solidarity, survival, and continuance. Social responsibility norms encourage it as a result.

All Ego?

Social movements, however, frequently appeal to self-interest, assuming that it will be ego, not altruism, that ultimately motivates a person to act. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement, for instance, appeals to the healthfulness of a plant-based diet at least as much as it appeals to social values of compassion. Sometimes, it also suggests to constituents that going vegan can bring with it greater personal peace. The Franz Kafka quote, for instance, has become a vegan trope:

But can appealing to self-interest and egoism really inspire more helping?

Traditionally, social psychologists argued that egoism determined helping behaviors. This theory suggests that behaving prosocially brings with it internal and external rewards for individuals (Batson 1987). For one, helping can reduce feelings of discomfort that might be more selfishly than altruistically motivated (Cialdini et al. 1987).

Altruism Motivates

Yet, not all social psychologists are convinced. After all, how can a person really know what internal rewards to expect without engaging the behavior first? Something else must be sparking that initial motivation. Furthermore, people will keep helping even after internal rewards have been reaped (Schroeder et al. 1988). As for external rewards, some people will help even when no one is watching (Fultz et al. 1986). Anonymous donors are an example of this.

Self-interest certainly has some effect, but the notion that egoism is the only determinant of human behavior is not scientifically sound. Vegan activists can safely ease off of egoist appeals to animal liberation and instead seek to trigger fundamental prosocial norms and altruistic tendencies in their communities.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Appeals to self-interest useful if participants are clear on rewards
  • Social pressure can increase helping
  • Genuine altruism can motivate, too

References

Batson, C. 1987. “Prosocial Motivation: Is it ever Truly Altruistic?Advances in Experimental Psychology 20: 65-122.

Cialdini, R., B. Schaller, M. Houlihan, D. Arps, K. Fultz, J. Beaman, and L. Arthur. 1987. “Empathy-based Helping: Is It Selflessly or Selfishly Motivated?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52 (4): 749-758.

Fultz, J., C. Batson, D. Fortenbach, A. Victoria, P. McCarthy., L. Varney. 1986. “Social Evaluation and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50 (4): 761-769.

D. Schroeder, J. Dovidio, M Sibicky, L. Matthews, and J. Allen. 1988. “Empathetic Concern and Helping Behavior: Egoism or Altruism?Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 24 (4): 333-353.

 


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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Socioemotional Selectivity Theory

Age (and Time Perception) Matters

According to socioemotional selectivity theory, as people age, their social goals shift considerably. For younger people who have a perception that there is much time ahead, they focus on knowledge-related goals. For older people with a perception that time is short, they tend to focus on emotional goals.

In other words, if your whole life is ahead of you, you may want to focus on personal growth, but if your life is coming to a close, you probably want to revel in ties with friends, family, and community with your remaining time. Presumably, connections with other animals would be included among these emotional goals.

These differing motivations require differing persuasion strategies. Although the Western vegan movement is dominated by younger demographics, movement actors could be unnecessarily restricting their reach by overlooking older constituents. Vegan campaigning could be more effective in targeting younger demographics with educational initiatives while targeting older demographics with compassion-based, emotional appeals.

However, time perception is relative. Younger persons could be primed to perceive that life is short, while older people could be primed to consider that there is much life yet to live. Thus, vegan activists can retain some ability to manipulate their audiences to suit a chosen campaign.

Overcoming Ageism in Vegan Campaigns

This research demonstrates that intersectional awareness is essential to the manufacture of effective vegan outreach. A one-size-fits-all campaign is unlikely to fully capitalize on a diversity of social and psychological positions that folks occupy according to their age, status, and health.

Social psychologists have noted that older people tend to be more ingrained in their ways and are less likely to pursue attitudinal and behavioral shifts (this is why social movements target college-age students). If social movements are not tailoring their strategies to accommodate diversity in life course positionality, the likelihood of persuading olders is even less. As the researchers argue, “[…] time perception is integral to human motivation […]” (Carstensen et al. 1999). Olders should not be excluded from campaigning, but activists do have a responsibility to acknowledge variations in social psychological responsiveness.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Target people who feel they have a lot of living to do with educational campaigns
  • Target people who feel they have limited time left on earth with emotional campaigns
  • Prime audiences, regardless of age, to perceive time as limited or abundant as appropriate to improve efficacy

References

Carstensen, L, D. Isaacowitz, and S. Charles. 1999. “Taking Time Seriously: A Theory of Socioemotional Selectivity.” American Psychologist 54 (3): 165-181.


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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Conformity

Why Conform?

Humans are social animals, and social animals, for the sake of survival, have an innate and sometimes unconscious appreciation for conformity. In early human societies, failure to comply with the group could endanger both the individual and the group. Conformity had an evolutionary advantage. When it comes to changing behavior, then, especially at the individual level, social movements have a major hurdle to overcome regarding culture and social norms that are decidedly discriminatory.

Research on vegan recidivism highlights a number of challenges. These include product availability, convenience, and so forth. Yet, one of the strongest predictors for the abandonment of veganism is a desire to conform to societal norms. This effect is heightened since most new vegans are young people, and young people are especially sensitive to fitting in because their identity and sense of belonging are still under construction.

Conformity and Social Injustice

Sadly, conformity can coerce well-meaning people to participate in truly horrific, violent acts. Challenging these cultural norms leaves the individual at risk of ostracization regardless if they are in the wrong or right. Humans opt for paths of least resistance, meaning that they are likely to laugh at racist jokes, eat animal flesh, or remain bystanders at accidents if that is what others around them are doing.

Conformity and Self-Sabotage

If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too? The social psychology of conformity suggests that you might. Humans not only engage in behaviors that are morally problematic due to conformity, but they can also work against their own self-interest.

One study found that, when participants in a study detected smoke seeping into the research facility, they looked to see how others reacted before reacting themselves. In this study, the researchers placed confederates in the facility who were told to ignore the smoke. Even as smoke billowed around them, participants failed to raise an alarm or leave the room simply because others in the room failed to do the same (Latane and Darley 1968).

Likewise, this is why youths take up smoking. They do so not because burning, chemical-laced tobacco tastes and smells good, but because all the “cool kids” are doing it (Harakeh and Vollebergh 2012). This is why vegan activists are not likely to convince their constituents to go vegan by touting veganism’s ability to prevent heart disease and cancer. People look to see what other people are doing before deciding what to do. If everyone around them is eating animal protein and animal protein is what dominates in grocery store aisles, restaurant menus, and television commercials, they will more than likely choose to conform to speciesism.

The Importance of Networks and Cultural Influence

Social movements often default to individualism when designing tactics by appealing to self-interest, but humans are social creatures. Peer pressure is extremely strong among human beings and should not be underestimated. The challenge for vegan activists, then, is to nurture a new societal culture for folks to conform to. Indeed, research finds that the strongest predictor for long-term adherence to veganism is a strong vegan network. Having friends and family members who are vegan, too, means that a new vegan will not feel so alienated. Celebrity vegan representation also helps, since opinion leaders and influencers can create new social norms.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Peer pressure and the desire to conform is a major impediment to vegan adherence
  • Nurturing strong vegan networks reduces recidivism
  • Vegan celebrities create new cultural norms for constituents to conform to

References

Harakeh, Z. and W. Vollebergh. 2012. “The Impact of Active and Passive Peer Influence on Young Adult Smoking: An Experimental Study.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 121 (3): 220-223.

Latane, B. and J. Darley. 1968. “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 10 (3): 215-221.


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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