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


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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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Moral Licensing

What is Moral Licensing?

In one fascinating psychological study, researchers found that doing a bit of good gives folks the license to do something naughty (Sachdeva et al. 2009). So, for instance, a person may go for a jog and then feel they can reward themselves with a box of donuts. Maybe that person participates in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes to raise awareness to domestic violence and later feel licensed to use pornography later.

When it comes to human relationships with other animals, this moral licensing could have implications for vegan activism. If someone donates to an animal charity, for instance, perhaps they feel they can “treat” themselves to some chickens’ wings later. Researchers would refer to this as a sort of moral self-regulation or licensing.

Limited Evidence

Although it is often the case that consumers will try to suppress any guilt they may feel for complacency in animal suffering by buying cage-free or donating to an animal welfare group, it is not necessarily the case that they will feel compelled to hurt Nonhuman Animals more as a result of acting prosocially.  Indeed, replication studies on moral licensing have not supported the existence of this psychological effect (Blanken et al. 2015).

Instead, cognitive dissonance is more likely at play. Cognitive dissonance occurs when folks become uneasy when confronted with a disconnect between their values and behaviors and then attempt to alleviate that conflict. Nonvegans can either tweak their values or behaviors to achieve psychological equilibrium. It is often the case that consumer values and behaviors shift toward the speciesist. In other words, when confronted with their empathy for other animals, some nonvegans double-down on their nonveganism to ease cognitive dissonance, not to engage in moral self-regulation.

Although moral licensing has little scientific support, it does remind us of the importance of scientific rigor. To be reliable, evidence should be supported by multiple studies. Activists, meanwhile, should investigate the source of scientific findings and determine their veracity before applying them to social movement efforts.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Moral licensing is not strongly supported by research
  • Individuals who practice prosocial behavior toward animals are not likely to “treat” themselves to speciesist practices in exchange


Blanken, I., N. van de Ven, and M. Zeelenberg. 2015. “A Meta-Analytic Review of Moral Licensing.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41 (4): 540-558.

Sachdeva, S., R. Iliev, and D. Medin. 2009. “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation.” Psychological Science 20: 523-528.


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Whataboutism

Trumping the Truth

The presidency of Donald Trump has been, for better or worse, highly enlightening for the vegan community. Trump and his campaigners have been particularly infamous for their ability to undermine the credibility of media coverage, scientific evidence, truth, and reality itself. This, in a way, is the same sort of business for vegans.

However, vegans do have to contend with media, science, and “facts” that are anything but truthful. Countermovements that find truth contentious can pull on a number of psychological tricks to stack the deck in their favor. Years after her defeat, for instance, Trump continued to raise the specter of “crooked” Senator Hillary Clinton in response to any complaints of his own failed policy or problematic behavior.

Trump’s Crooked Hillary trope is a classic example of what political pundits and social psychologists refer to as “whataboutism.” Whataboutism is a logical fallacy that works by deflecting criticism with charges of hypocrisy. Trump is certainly not the originator of this strategy. Political scientists have observed it as foundational to the Russian propaganda machine as well.

What About Animals?

As this series has examined, vegans must contend with a wide variety of deflecting techniques by animal consumers made uneasy by the cognitive dissonance. Whataboutism is perhaps one of the more readily available strategies to engage for this purpose. When confronted with a vegan message, many animal consumers retort, “What about mosquitos?” or “What about bacteria?” Other favorites include, “What about yeast?”, “What about animals killed to collect grain?”, and “What about the medicine you take?” In other words, nonvegans frequently deflect the vegan message with attempts to identify inconsistencies in vegan practice.

Although some activists have argued that these sorts of questions constitute genuine inquiries as to the limits of vegan ethics, social psychology suggests them to be classic examples of whataboutism. Whataboutism is a powerful means of resisting fact, truth, and reality. The election of Donald Trump stands as one telling example of this strategy’s effectiveness. The mass killing of animals in a world that claims to care about animal welfare is another.


The good news is that whataboutism is not impervious. Sociologists suggest that practicing reflexivity can encourage meta-cognitive consideration of how one’s identity shapes one’s political positioning (Dean 2017). Pointing out logical fallacies and mechanisms of bias can thwart whataboutism.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Recognize the difference between genuine ethical inquiries and psychological dissonance-dodging
  • Encourage reflexiveness


Dean, J. 2017. Doing Reflexivity. Chicago, IL: The Chicago University Press.


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Segregation

Sociologists understand segregation to be one of the most potent and fundamental processes of oppression. Creating separation entails highlighting difference. This, in turn, justifies inequality. Segregation literally marginalizes vulnerable groups.

Segregation can happen by race, impacting housing. It can also happen by gender, impacting education. Vegan activists also recognize how segregation aggravates the human-animal divide. Since the industrial revolution, Nonhuman Animals have been increasingly segregated in remote agricultural spaces in feedlots, barns, and other intensive operations. This physical disconnect leads to a social disconnect. Even policies that ban dogs from public spaces or require the abandonment of companion animals during disasters help reinforce this physical othering.

Interestingly, social psychologists have noticed that segregation can also lead to the formation of negative attitudes about food. In a study of a restaurant’s menu design, reseachers discovered that lumping all plant-based options together in a separate section reduced their appeal. They were seen as marginal, out of the ordinary, and foreign. Alternatively, by integrating plant-based meals into the main menu space, nonvegan diners gave these dishes equal consideration. Diners were much more likely to choose vegan plates from the integrated menu than from the segregated menu.

Although lumping plant-based options together can make it easier for vegan diners to determine if the restaurant caters to their political and dietary needs, this is not a tactic that is likely to increase the popularity of veganism. After all, lots of nonvegans eat vegan meals regularly without thinking anything of it. It is only when these meals are labeled and segregated as “vegan” that nonvegan consumers disparage them as bland, unwholesome, or unfulfilling, claiming that they “could never be vegan.” This happens because the segregation elicits negative connotations of an otherized and stigmatized out-group.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Avoid segregating vegan choices
  • Integrate vegan choices with nonvegan choices if nonvegan choices are provided


Holzer, J. 2017. “Don’t Put Vegetables in the Corner.” World Resources Institute.

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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Male Emotional Displays

Like many social movements, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement relies heavily on emotional displays to mobilize audiences. But, this movement is also highly gendered. Women predominate in the rank-in-file, but many of the most high profile activists are male. An activist’s gender identity can affect how their emotional displays are interpreted.

In a social psychological study of juror interpretations of perpetrators on trial, researchers found that, “jurors evaluate perpetrators who display distress more positively than those without signs of remorse” (Zhao and Rogalin 2017: 338). However, the effect was most pronounced with men.

The researchers describe this as an “emotional display premium.” This premium is afforded by men’s higher social status. Consider, for instance, how Obama’s visible tears following school shootings endeared him. Had Hillary Clinton expressed sadness in this way, she would have probably been labeled weak and unfit for politics.

Vegan activists usually work hard to control their feminine emotional displays, while masculinized emotion like anger and outrage are valorized (Groves 2001). However, Zhao and Rogalin’s research suggests that vegan protest would benefit if men were to display more feminized emotions of sadness and remorse.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Male displays of emotion are interpreted as sincere
  • Female displays are less likely to elicit positive evaluation


Groves, J. 2001. “Animal Rights and the Politics of Emotion.” Pp. 212-232, in Passionate Politics, J. Goodwin, J. Jasper, and F. Polletta (eds.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Zhao, J. and C. Rogalin. 2017. “Heinous Crime or Unfortunate Incident: Does Gender Matter?Social Psychology Quarterly 80 (4): 330-341.

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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Extreme Rituals

Extreme Rituals

Animal activists regularly employ extreme protest rituals in hopes of soliciting empathy and support from audiences. Activists may engage in dangerous tree-sits. They may brand one another with hot irons as if they were cows. Similarly, they even reenact painful medical experiments or sexual violence against other animals.

Social psychological research supports the effectiveness of this tactic. For instance, one study finds that individuals who observed extreme religious rituals donated more. Examples of triggering rituals include undergoing multiple piercings, carrying heavy loads, self-flaggilation, or barefoot pilgrimages. Apparently, witnessing this suffering encouraged them to identify with the practitioner. They felt more generous as a result. The pain that observers perceived practitioners experiencing was highly motivating.

In For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism (2017), Sarah Pike’s sociological research finds that protest rituals do not just cue prosociality among audiences. They also do so within activist communities. Extreme rituals heighten emotions and elicit solidarity. Extreme rituals draw attention to the vulnerability of activists and those for whom they advocate.

Minding Gender

Although extreme rituals have the power to trigger prosocial behavior among audiences and activist groups, the fact that women predominate in vegan activism is cause for some concern. Women are disproportionately utilized in graphic public protests (Wrenn 2013). This has the potential to aggravate gendered mental schemas that link violence, suffering, and femininity. Worse still, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement frequently sexualizes women’s suffering.

Research finds that audiences recognize the sexist component to these campaigns. Consequently, they are less likely to find the vegan message persuasive.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Extreme protest rituals may trigger prosocial behaviors such as donating
  • They also encourage group solidarity
  • Extreme rituals that exploit women may repel audiences


Pike, S. 2017. For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Wrenn, C. L. 2013. “The Role of Professionalization Regarding Female Exploitation in the Nonhuman Animal Rights Movement.” Journal of Gender Studies 24 (2): 131-146.

Xygalatas, D., P. Mitkidis, R. Fischer, P. Reddish, J. Skewes, A. Geertz, A. Roepstorff, and J. Bulbulia. 2012. “Extreme Rituals Promote Prosociality.” Psychological Science 24 (8): 1602-1605.


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Can You Read Yourself Vegan?

The processes of persuasion and behavioral change are complex. Social psychologists recognize that information can influence us differently depending on the channel of dissemination. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement relies quite heavily on text-based literature to promote pro-social attitudes regarding other animals. But, can you really read yourself vegan?

Veganism’s Historical Reading Agenda

In The Gospel of Kindness (2016), Janet Davis notes the movement’s shift to a humane education campaign. This strategy reflected the great improvements in literacy and printing technology. Organizations pumped schools, church groups, and community centers full of pro-animal books, teaching plans, trained speakers, and youth humane clubs.

Similarly, the movement also relied on the greatly popular books, Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe (1893). These books documented the variety of cruelties and injustices imposed on Nonhuman Animals. They also demonstrated the redemptive power of kindness and empathy. Movement historian Diane Beers notes that welfare organizations purchased millions of copies of these books for free dispersal.

Reading and Persuasion

Scientists are now seeking to measure the behavioral impact of texts that are intended to mobilize. For instance, one study on the impact of Michael Pollan’s work on university students found that, first, students experienced a sharp increase in food justice knowledge, but, second, any corresponding behavioral changes were minimal. Furthermore, researchers followed up on participants a year later and found that most changes had disappeared (Hormes et al. 2013).

Likewise, Malecki et al. (2018) examined the impact of animal welfare narratives on high school students in Poland and Italy. Attitudinal changes were only really observable for about a week after having read the novels used in the study. Additionally, no immediate behavioral changes were observed (for instance, the students were no more motivated to donate to a charity).


For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Narratives about animal welfare can increase pro-animal attitudes
  • Narratives have shortlived impacts
  • Narratives must be consistently applied to maintain effect


Beers, D. 2006. For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Davis, J. 2016. The Gospel of Kindness. New York, NY: Oxford.

Hormes, J., P. Rozin, M. Green, and K. Fincher. 2013. “Reading a Book Can Change Your Mind, but Only Some Changes Last for a Year.” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (778).

Malecki, W., B. Pawlowski, M. Cieńskia,  and P. Sorokowski. 2018. “Can Fiction Make Us Kinder to Other Species?Poetics 66: 54-63.

Saunders, M. 1893. Beautiful Joe. Philadelphia, PA: The Griffith and Rowland Press.

Sewell, A. 1877. Black Beauty. London: Jarrold and Sons.

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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Linked Oppression

Vegan feminist theory argues that the oppressive treatment of Nonhuman Animals, particularly in their being animalized, is fundamental to sexism (and other systems of oppression). Vegan feminism also argues that patriarchy informs violence against other animals. In other words, oppressions are linked.

Increasingly, psychological research is lending evidence to this theory. Gender usually has a noticeable relationship in regard to participant relation to other animals. Allcorn & Ogletree (2018), for instance, found a correlation between nontraditional/feminist viewpoints about gender and positive attitudes toward other animals. This included an interest in not eating them. Conversely, sexist participants were more likely to harbor anti-animal attitudes and support meat consumption.

Research of this kind supports the notion that violence and discrimination emerge in systems of domination. Marginalized groups across the spectrum are subject to routine social mechanisms to normalize this social inequality. Be they women or nonhuman, they are understood to be “other,” less than, animal-like, irrational, nameless, unimportant, unqualified, unclean, unworthy of rights or political representation, and inferior in general.

Finally, although gender is a major component in determining human-nonhuman relationships, it is ultimately species identity that creates the strongest influence. Humans, regardless of gender, are in a relation of extreme privilege with other animals. In fact, some psychological research does not support that gender roles associated with femininity increase empathy for other animals (Zickfeld et al. 2018).

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Gender impacts perceived relation to other animals
  • Tailor activism to account for the influence of gender role expectations
  • Incorporate an intersectional framework


Allcorn, A. and S. Ogletree. 2018. “Linked Oppression: Connecting Animal and Gender Attitudes.” Feminism & Psychology. Online first.

Zickfeld, J., J. Kunst, and S. Hohle. 2018. “Too Sweet to Eat: Exploring the Effects of Cuteness on Meat Consumption.” Appetite 120 (1): 181-195.

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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Reality Politics

What is Real?

In the 1970s, Pringles Newfangled Potato Chips was ordered by the US Food and Drug Administration to call itself by another name. Pringles are fried crisps comprised of compressed potato flakes rather than the typical thin slice of potato. Since their launch in 1967, have been a huge hit. Incumbent snack barons were threatened by this success and pressured the US government to order the name change. Pringles were still chips of deep-fried potato, of course, but Big Food hoped to convince the public that Pringles was something other. They weren’t real chips.

Real hellmans mayonnaise reality politics

Big Food, like other institutions with government backing and elite funding, has the power to manipulate reality. As vegan products and analogs become popular, they have faced the same resistance. For example, Hampton Creek, maker of the vegan Just Mayo product, found itself the target of government-funded attempts to undermine the company at the behest of the American Egg Board (a branch of the US Agricultural Department that is supported by taxpayer dollars). Major mayo companies based in animal bodies also began to label their products as “Real Mayo.”

Meanwhile, in France, the popularity of vegan products of all sort has prompted the government to ban all “meat” and “dairy” related words from plant-based products.

Language Politics

All of this political wrangling points to the sociological importance of language. For humans, language not only reflects their social reality but helps to shape it. In the realm of vegan activism, this language politicization is seen in the language change of the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act. Politicians, pressured by animal industries, strategically inserted “terrorist” terminology into the act. In an instant, Americans practicing their fundamental right to protest as part of a long tradition of American resistance and critical discourse were reframed as anti-American and criminal.

Language is political given its sway over psychological processes; it can be leveraged to maintain the status quo or to disrupt it. It is generally those entities in power who retain the privilege of determining social meaning vis-a-vis language, but social movements are effective agents in disrupting social meaning. Movements can manipulate meaning, too.

Language cues individuals about how they should relate with a person, thing, or circumstance. Just Mayo, labeled and packaged as a fat-based sandwich spread, makes more sense to the uninitiated customer. Tofu, by contrast, makes many folks scratch their heads. Activists must find the right balance in working within the existent reality of non-vegans while pushing them to incorporate new attitudes and behaviors.

Pringles may not be an official “chip,” but they have consistently reigned as one of America’s (and Europe’s) best-selling potato products for over fifty years. Can vegan products expect similar success despite restrictions on their product labeling? While I hesitate to dismiss the potency of label language, I think there is reason to be hopeful.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Language matters
  • Present vegan products as similar to already popular foods


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Variety

Unfamiliarity with new foods can be a major barrier to successfully promoting veganism, but this is an easy enough fix. One study found that non-vegans who were repeatedly exposed to vegan alternatives to “meat” began to view them more favorably (Hoek et al. 2013). This is consistent with the mere exposure effect, a psychological response that surfaces when an audience is exposed to something many times over. Eventually, the audience will grow more comfortable with that something and form positive associations with it.

However, participants in this study also reported boredom with the three products repeatedly used by researchers, indicating the importance of variety. Indeed, the human brain is programmed to respond to novelty (Gallagher 2011). Activists could, therefore, increase persuasion by emphasizing the variety of vegan foods and recipes available. Stereotypes about tofu, twigs, and leaves will need to be challenged. Activists might also cue novelty by introducing provocative anti-speciesist theory, as this is not something many have had a chance to consider before.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Expose audiences to vegan foods to increase familiarity and liking
  • Try to include a variety of vegan foods to peak interest and avoid boredom


Gallagher, W. New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.

Hoek, A. et al. 2013. “Are Meat Substitutes Liked Better Over Time? A Repeated In-home Use Test with Meat Substitutes or Meat in Meals.” Food Quality and Preference 28(1): 253-263.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

Part of this essay was originally published by VegFund on May 7, 2013.

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