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.


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. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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