Frustrated activists often lament that audiences simply do not want to listen to them. “I just don’t want to know!” is a commonly-heard refrain. They will not be surprised to learn that social psychology supports this observation.
Researchers have found that most people rely on a system of selective exposure in which they seek out and pay attention to information that supports their preexisting views. As Sweeny et al. (2010) describe, “…people often opt to remain ignorant.” The worry is that this deliberate close-mindedness will impact sound decision-making and hinder social movement success.
According to these researchers, a multitude of personality traits interact to influence a person’s tendency toward selective exposure. For instance, some engage information as a coping mechanism; while others ignore information as a coping mechanism. Likewise, some people are more comfortable with uncertainty than others. Ease of obtaining and interpreting information, as well as the amount of control a person feels over the consequences of that information are also critical.
Therefore, sensitivity to individual characteristics is important for activists. Personal dispositions of audience members are largely outside of an activist’s control, but veganism can be presented as an attainable and viable alternative. Information about the transition to veganism should be easy to access and a variety of strategies for achieving this transition should be provided to reduce the potential for selection bias to surface.
Hart et al. (2009) found that selection bias was highest when it was relevant to accomplishing a goal. For instance, a nonvegan person wishing to lose weight may seek out diets that affirm their flesh-based consumption patterns, such as the Atkin’s Diet. This bias can be reduced if an individual’s attitudes are supported prior to their seeking information, but only if their attitudes are not strongly held or relevant to their values.
For instance, an activist may acknowledge that switching to a plant-based diet will mean forgoing traditional “meat” and dairy fare and offer some tempting alternatives to prevent selection bias from emerging. Activists must also be strategic in their timing, and may gear up for food-centered holidays when people are likely to start thinking about seeking information on their diet. Planning ahead for New Year’s when resolutions are made and information is sought would be another wise strategy.
Other inhibiting factors that activist should be aware of include the individual’s level of close-mindedness and confidence in their attitudes. Those who are particularly confident may not feel threatened by exposure to opposing information and are consequently less likely to exhibit information avoidance. Strength of attitude, it turns out, is not as influential to resistance as is the existence of a particular goal.
If that goal includes harm to other animals, persuasion may be difficult. The Bill and Lou controversy is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Bill and Lou were two oxen that labored for years in the agricultural program at Green Mountain College in Vermont. As they grew older and were no longer economically useful, the university decided to slaughter the pair. Publically, it claimed to encourage an open discourse on this decision, but the onslaught of opposing information that the university quickly received from horrified animal allies did little to sway the decision. Instead, the college selectively exposed itself to information that touted human supremacism and sustainability, information which supported its determined goal to kill Bill and Lou.
For the Vegan Toolkit
- Avoid selective exposure tendencies by using two-sided appeals
- Make information easily accessible
- Provide alternative strategies for goal attainment
- Employ persuasive appeals before the audience begins the process of information seeking
- Avoid selective exposure by targeting audiences without strong preexisting attitudes about speciesism
Fischer, P. and T. Greitemeyer. 2010. “A New Look at Selective-Exposure Effects: An Integrative Model.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 19: 384-389.
Hart, W., D. Albarracin, A. Eagly, I. Brechan, M. Lindberg, and L. Merrill. 2009. “Feeling Validated Versus Being Correct: A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information.” Psychological Bulletin 135: 555-588.
Sweeny, K., D. Melnyk, W. Miller, J. Shepperd. 2010. “Information Avoidance: Who, What, When, and Why.” Review of General Psychology 14: 340-353.
Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.
This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.