Tag Archives: Social Psychology

What Sociology Can Tell Us about Empathy for Animals

Empathy for Animals is a Core Human Value

Humans across the globe share their homes with dogs, cats, rodents, and other animals. We call them companions, pets, or even family members. Thousands of pounds are invested in these animals with regard to food, treats, toys, clothing, kennels, healthcare, and even birthdays and funeral services. Clearly humans deeply care about other animals. At our core, we have empathy for animals other than ourselves.

Exploitative Economies Distort Our Empathy for Animals

So why do so many humans stop short of extending this compassion to animals categorized as food, clothing, or labour? Sociology offers a variety of explanations according to theoretical perspectives. Many sociologists, however, point to the economic structure of a society and the commodification of nonhuman animals. David Nibert has argued that our switch to a hunting economy not only created a society newly structured around the oppression of animals (speciesism) but it also created a society divided by gender. The transition to agriculture entrenched speciesism further with the advent of domestication. This also introduced class division since agriculture allowed for surplus goods (and unequal distribution).

By the late 1500s, early capitalism and colonial expansion spread and deepened speciesism across the globe (and, in doing so, introduced racial division as well). Today, in late-stage capitalism, speciesism (animal agriculture in particular) is more intensive than ever. It is rapidly normalizing in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other previously colonized spaces as a result of Western coercion. These are regions where plant-based consumption was once normative. The loss of traditional foodways is not only harmful for nonhuman animals identified as “food,” but the global poor identified as their consumers. Social stratification, in other words, is rooted in the adoption of speciesism as a primary economy both past and present.

Distorted Empathy for Animals Includes Humans, Too

Notice how human oppression codeveloped with animal oppression. This intersectionality is key to the sociological understanding of speciesism. Species, race, class, gender, and other social categories are economically functional. They ensure that unpleasant jobs will be filled and that labour may be exploited for low cost (or for none at all). These categories also represent social difference and tend to facilitate conflict and discourage cooperation. For sociologists, this tendency is politically relevant. A divided society, after all, is more easily manipulated by the dominant class in support of its own interests.

The most fundamental social division is that between humans and other animals. It is this animalization which separates those who are marginalized from those who are centered in society with regard to social recognition and allocation of resources. Women are animalized, people of color are animalized, humans with disabilities are animalized, homosexual people are animalized, ethnic minorities are animalized, and non-binary and trans humans are animalized. Even nonhuman animals themselves are animalized.

This is because “animal” is a social category imbrued with symbolic meaning. Just like race really has more to do with power, prestige, and access to resources than it does with one’s actual skin color, species is also not so much about one’s biological makeup (i.e. if one has hands or hooves, skin or scales). All groups, whether human or nonhuman, that are labeled “animal” are described as physically and cognitively inferior to the dominant class and can be denied rights accordingly.

Unteaching Empathy

True, nonhuman and human animals are indeed biologically different. But there are many more commonalities between the two groups. Why do we emphasize difference over sameness? I have described a society that is fundamentally in conflict. In order to maintain such a volatile system, powerful ideologies must be introduced and enforced through institutions and socialization. Psychologists point to a variety of cognitive and emotional mechanisms for managing the discomfort humans feel when faced with contradictions in their empathy toward other animals. Sociologists, however, are interested in how our empathy for some animals and our lack of empathy for others is learned (or, more accurately, is taught).

We are taught by our parents that some animals are for petting, some animals are for admiring, some are pests we should kill, and others are food we should eat. Doctors (who generally lack nutritional training) teach us that eating animals and drinking nonhuman breastmilk is good for us. We are taught by our teachers, museums, and zoos that nonhuman animals are ours to exploit. Mainstream media (which long since converged in the 1990s under the ownership of a handful of powerful billionaires) programs us that animals are objects and our using them is good for the economy. We’re being taught these lessons from childhood throughout our life course.

Reclaiming Empathy

Fortunately, if speciesism is something that is learned, that means it is something which can be unlearned. Sociologists are also interested in how social change happens and how social justice can be achieved in a society that is fundamentally unequal. Although the system may be rigged against us (and nonhuman animals), individuals can resist the erosion of our empathy by choosing food, clothing, and entertainment which does not harm other animals. Individuals can also work to create a more inclusive, peaceful world by getting active in our communities and putting pressure on policy-makers. It is possible to reclaim our empathy for animals.


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

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

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Veganism and Alternative Facts

The Role of Scientific Claimsmaking in a Rationalized Movementscape

One of the defining features of the 21st-century Nonhuman Animal rights movement is its move to increase rationalization. This is a process that prioritizes efficacy, control, and calculability of operations (Wrenn 2016). It is also especially concerned with fundraising and bureaucratic growth.

The social movement arena is a crowded one, however, and taking this predictable path makes it difficult for organizations to stand out in their effort to attract large grants and donations. One increasingly utilized strategy to get an edge on the competition is to demonstrate the efficacy of that organization’s chosen tactic.

With the lives of so many Nonhuman Animals on the line, investing more resources into learning what tactics are more or less effective is vital. However, social movement organizations often evoke scientific research to support their preexisting strategies and ideologies. Research that demonstrates contrary results may be ignored; research that provides weak results may be overly hyped.

As we know to be true of political debates transpiring in mainstream media, “alternative facts” and “fake news” can easily dominate in the social movement discourse as well. Few activists will be bothered to investigate the truthfulness of the claims being made. Even fewer have the skills necessary to determine the validity or reliability of scientific results. This essay is designed to highlight some issues for activists to consider when determining the usefulness of tactical research.

The Importance of Significance

A widely circulated and celebrated Faunalytics study, “Reduce” Or “Go Veg”? Effects On Meal Choice, exposed diners at a university cafe to two videos. One promoted a flexitarian solution, the other vegetarianism. Afterward, researchers tracked participant meal choices to ascertain if exposure to either film was influential. The findings?

After a reduction advocacy video, 25.8% of participants ordered a meatless meal, versus 18.9% after a vegetarian advocacy video (a marginally significant difference). (p.4)

Significance is key. It is the difference between a measurable correlation between variables (x influencing y) and random occurance (x just happens to actify when y does). The more significant the statistical result, the more confidence we can have in a correlational relationship existing between two variables. In this case, we are interested in the relationship between exposure to a particular message (x) and subsequent meal choice (y).

If the difference between the two messages is “marginally significant,” why not go with the morally consistent one? I believe the findings were misinterpreted in an effort to lend scientific support to outreach behaviors already engaged by nonprofits. These behaviors tend to be individualistic, one-off, and, given their avoidance of animal liberation and vegan language, more appealing to potential funders.

The professionalized movement has a propensity for aggravating vegan stigma, a persistent trend I have uncovered in an extensive content analysis of movement publications. Other researchers have noted blatant underreporting on existing vegan numbers as well.

The Faunalytics study also found that more people reported that they would be willing to reduce their consumption of “meat” than those who indicated they would be willing to eliminate it altogether. But what does this flexitarian claim really mean? The professionalized Nonhuman Animal rights movement has for many years now adopted the “meet people where they are” approach which does little, if anything, to push people past their existing dietary habits. Although vegan and vegetarian consumption is stigmatized behavior, it is also recognized as a social good (a paradox explained by do-gooder derogation). In other words, folks are more likely to report in such a way that puts them in a positive light, even if it is not an accurate representation of their behavior.

What about the actual “marginally significant” behavior change? Having folks immediately order a single meatless meal is not necessarily any better than successfully recruiting fewer vegetarians. Vegetarians and vegans (who, by the way, are more likely to commit when it their consumption is not viewed as a diet but instead becomes part of their identity) will order infinite meatless meals over their lifetime. Theoretically, they will far surpass their flexitarian counterparts in their capacity to reduce harm to other animals.

Spuriousness

It is also important to consider other things that might be influencing behavior (y). Crime rates tend to go up in the summer at the same time ice cream sales rise. Does this mean that ice cream consumption (x) causes crime (y)? No, of course not. There is a spurious relationship between the two which can be pinned on the warm weather which makes ice cream more palatable and crime more enticing (stealing cars, for instance, is less appealing when it is freezing outside). Social science researchers shy away from causation language for this reason (ie. “x causes y“).

There are so many confounding variables in social science research, it can be difficult to assign weight to the results. With regard to the study in question, we might first consider social psychological barriers. Asking people to go vegetarian on the spot is unrealistic; many people need time to process and consider (McDonald 2000). Caught off guard on the way to eat a meal already planned in their head, how many more would change their choice if given more time to contemplate?

For most of us, when we go to a local restaurant for lunch, we are taking time out of the busiest part of our day to visit a place (and a menu) already well known to us. That is, we have made our meal choice before we even arrived. Many folks (myself included) go out to eat with a general idea of what they will be ordering when they arrive to the restaurant. Perhaps you can recall the feeling of arriving a favorite restaurant and your preferred meal choice is sold out, or, you visit a new restaurant for the first time and cannot decide. It can be flustering! Indeed, having to make a choice can sometimes be taxing or anxiety-inducing. This is one reason why people are creatures of habit. It is less cognitively taxing.

Furthermore, a coffee shop is a strange place to conduct a study of this kind, as this is not a typical sort of place one might go for a regular meal. Many of the veg options (such as those offered by the experiment location: eggplant, tofu, etc.) are likely to be unfamiliar to the average pizza, burger, and taco eating university student. Here, the confounding variable might be consumer familiarity with non-flesh foods.

The percieved  accusatory approach may also be problematic. Social psychologist Hank Rothgerber finds, for instance, that participants may double down in their commitment to speciesism when they suspect that they are being expected to abstain. These folks brazenly reported that they planned to eat more Nonhuman Animals.

Sociology would further suggest that group dynamics are relevant here. The Faunalytics study focuses on individual patrons, but the presence of others (or lack thereof) influences how individuals process information and behave. The presentation of veganism as something that is trendy and socially normative is also important for recruitment. This study, in utilizing an experimental design, attempts to isolate action and reaction, but the social world is not so simplistic. 

The Problem of Generalizability

Another recent study on vegan motivation by Trent Grassian (A New Way of Eating: Creating Meat Reducers, Vegetarians and Vegans) is a bit more realistic in capturing real-world behaviors. It did not demonstrate very positive result for the flexitarian approach. The main finding?

Those with the strictest goals (i.e. vegans) were the most likely to be meeting their reduction goals (78%), while meat reducers were the least likely (39%).

While meat reducers were more likely to reduce than not in the first month, the reverse was true afterward, with 54% being temporary reducers at six months, 36% long-term reducers and 10% no longer consuming meat.

Flexitarians also reported that they planned on eating more animal products (such as fish flesh or birds’ eggs) to compensate.

Grassian’s study surveyed participants in various veg pledges hosted by Nonhuman Animal advocacy and veg organizations. He also employed focus groups to allow participants to share  more in-depth explanations.

Triangulation is important in order to account for inevitable shortcomings in various approaches. Interviewees may  not be entirely clear when engaging with a researcher for instance, but additional surveys may improve the study’s validity. Triangulating in this way also improves generalizability, that is, how applicable the results from a study’s sample will be to the general population.

A random sample is also important for achieving generalizability, but this was not accomplished with the Grassian study which studied people who had already signed up for a veg pledge. His respondents were disproportionately white, female, and middle-class, a demographic that is consistent with the larger Nonhuman Animal rights movement, but not very representative of the population.

The Faunalytics study was stronger in this regard as it targeted random cafe customers, but this cafe is located on a Canadian university campus. University students are over-represented in vegan motivational research. They are easily accessible to academics for obvious reasons, but also to activist researchers since university campuses are open to the public, have heavy footfall, and are populated with young people who are more willing to respond to requests for interviews and experimental participation for little or no cost. However, the average university student in the West is not representative of the general population. University students are disproportionately white, middle- and upper-class, urban, and well educated.

Because many vegan organizations actively target university students as their primary audience, this may not be a serious issue. If, however, they wish to reach out to underserved demographics (such as older persons, communities of color, lower income communities, and so on), they will want to be wary. What motivates a white middle-class university student is not necessarily what will motivate the average person.

Given these issues, researchers have an ethical obligation to refrain from making sweeping claims about what works based on one precarious study. This research (and their claims) will influence countless organizations, activists, and Nonhuman Animals.

What to Believe?

Science is notoriously politial. Everyone has an agenda, and funding (or lack thereof) can influence the types of questions asked, the findings, and the interpretation of the findings. In the Trump era, the malleability of science is repeatedly bombasted in an effort to confuse the population and erode its trust in social institutions. We should resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to vegan science.

Instead, activists should be mindful and practice critical thinking. Know where the research is coming from, who conducted it, and what motivates them. Certainly, before any research is put into practical action, social movement actors should investigate the research for themselves.

Works Cited

Anderson, J. 2020. “‘Reduce’ or ‘Go Veg’? Effects on Meal Choice. Faunalytics.

Grassian, T. 2019. A New Way of Eating: Creating Meat Reducers, Vegetarians
and Vegans
. University of Kent.

McDonald, B. 2000. “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It.’ An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.Society & Animals 8 (1): 1-23.

Wrenn, C. 2016. A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. London: Palgrave.

Wrenn, C. 2018. Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism. Society & Animals 26 (4). Online first. DOI: 10.1163/15685306-12341544.


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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

Readers can learn more about the politics of vegan research in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Why I’m Giving Beyoncé’s Vegan Campaign a Chance

Beyoncé and Jay-Z shocked mainstream news and vegan activists alike when they announced that fans who pledge to go plant-based have a chance to win free tickets to their concerts for life.

Some vegans have not been so enthusiastic about the campaign, citing that veganism “for the health” is not the same as veganism “for the animals,” and that veganism is not something that can be “forced” on others.

Whose Veganism is It Anyway?

To this I would counter that, although some (myself included) may understand veganism to be a matter of anti-speciesism, vegans should hesitate to insist that the Eurocentric interpretation of veganism is the only valid approach.

As a practical matter, a “master frame” of veganism is not especially useful in the context of a diverse audience. Personally, I critique the hegemonic vegan frame which is highly bureaucratized and prioritizes capitalist interests over the interests of effective social change (which I argue inevitably undermines veganism). To be able to criticize hegemonic veganism from this angle, however, is a reflection of my white privilege.

As a white person, I have to concede that other ethnicities will have other priorities. These include the deadly consequences of food deserts and food insecurity as well as the role that “animality” as a social construct has played in the oppression of people of color. These are priorities which have been beautifully outlined by activist scholars such as Dr. Breeze Harper and Aph & Syl Ko.

I concede that “my” veganism will not be the veganism that other folk feel compelled to adopt.

The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Beyoncé definitely does not count as a “vegan” according to this definition. She claims to eat animals’ flesh occasionally since it’s “all about moderation.” I assume her stage outfits make use of real birds’ feathers and cows’ skin as well. Her makeup is probably produced from slaughterhouse renderings and tested on other animals. She could exclude these things quite “possibly” and “practicably.”

But is The Vegan Society’s definition the only definition that matters? More specifically, is it the only definition which should apply to everyone? What about people of color living in a racialized society?

I suggest that the vegan identity is multifaceted and that the terms of engagement must be contextualized.

Cultural Force

In any case, I think it is a stretch to claim that Bey (who is not even a vegan herself) is “forcing” veganism on others. Fans who claim to go vegan (how can their veganism even be verified?) only have a chance to win free tickets, they are not guaranteed free tickets. Attending expensive music concerts is not a requirement, it is only recreational. Nor do Bey or Jay-Z require a complete transition since they also promote reducetarianism or “meatless Mondays.”

As I have uncovered in my research on flexitarian campaigns of this kind, many people already identify as someone who does not eat “that much” meat or dairy, since reducing animal product consumption is seen as a social good (unlike veganism which is interpreted as “extreme”). Importantly, the flexitarian identity does not often correlate with actual behavior change. In some cases, those who identify as flexitarian actually consume more animal products than their non-flexitarian-identifying counterparts.

That said, Bey is using her cultural clout to promote a social good. This is no different from the efforts of white celebrities like Moby, Morrissey, and, if you stretch it, Miley Cyrus. Morrissey reportedly bans all sale of animal flesh at his concerts–is he forcing his fans to be vegetarian?

True, celebrities are rarely trained in social justice activism, and their politics are not always perfect. I also find it uncomfortable that society should rely on celebrities to promote social goods since celebrities, given their extreme wealth, are the very embodiment of social inequality. Yet, Bey is putting her money where her mouth is–she is using her celebrity and privilege to make the world a better place through the channels available to her.

As this essay goes to print, Senator Cory Booker (also a person of color) has just announced his bid for presidency. He is a fierce social justice advocate and a longtime vegan. But he, too, promotes veganism for a wide variety of reasons which do not always center other animals. Would the movement be so quick (and foolhardy) to write off Cory Booker if he were to become our first vegan president? Need the vegan movement even have to wait for a vegan president? Beyoncé is practically American royalty, after all. Her clout arguably exceeds that of Booker’s.

Whether white activists like it or not, celebrity influencers shape the cultural landscape. The vegan identity (unlike the flexitarian identity) is a highly stigmatized one, and social movements will need to normalize its goals before they can be widely adopted. If Queen Bey makes vegan cool, it might not be “for the right reasons” (that is, it might not seek to advance the interests of Nonhuman Animals), but it can have a significant impact on the community she serves.

The Master Frame

Social movement scholars acknowledge that collectives strategically design frames which are hoped to resonate with their audiences. Multiple frames can be at work, but it is sometimes the case that a “master frame” will come to dominate in the movement’s repertoire. The utility of a master frame is its ability to present a strong, united front to the public and policy-makers. The downside is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach can be unrealistic given that audiences (and activists themselves) are not necessarily homogenous. Persuasion is a complicated matter and it sometimes takes many approaches to push a social justice agenda.

The Vegan Society, which formed in 1944 Britain and officially launched the political concept of “veganism” in the West following a protracted debate with The Vegetarian Society, may have prioritized veganism as a matter of anti-speciesism, but, from its very conception, it drew on a diverse framework relating to human health, poverty and famine, war, and individual autonomy. Indeed, The Vegan Society, today, continues a multipronged approach.

As the society moved into the 21st century, it continued to promote veganism, not necessarily as an endeavor to liberate other animals, but as something “normal” and achievable. Its vegan labeling scheme, for instance, was a major campaign in this effort. I have my issues with such an approach given its pro-capitalist leanings and its watering down of the anti-speciesist radical politic, but it is the case nonetheless that the expansion of commercially available vegan products has made veganism easier to perform.

Beyoncé has been dragged before for not meeting the expectations of white activist frames. White feminists, for instance, have criticized her brand of feminism as sexually objectifying and complicit with patriarchy, if not ignored it altogether. Black feminists have responded by reminding the community that there is no one “Feminism” (capital F) but rather many feminisms, and the failure to embrace Black women’s activism reflects white supremacy in the public space.

Because inequality does not stop at the door of social justice movements, activists must consider how inequality can sometimes shape strategy. Who is the “master” in developing the “master frame”? What I am suggesting is that the “master frame” is too frequently racialized in its construction.

Likewise, the need to control the vegan discourse and the very definition of veganism itself is rooted in colonial politics. As European countries pushed their culture onto “inferior” and “ignorant” subjects, they expected full assimilation. There was little patience for adaptation or nuance; it was simply presumed that European cultural values were universal and should be adopted unquestioningly. This is the very definition of cultural domination.

In this vein, it must be remembered that, while non-Western countries have their own histories of plant-based resistance, “Veganism” (capital V) as it is understood and politicized today, is a deeply European concept. White activists must tread carefully when attempting to impose “their” veganism on “others.” Indeed, the vegan movement, dominated as it is by white activists, has been less than welcoming to the veganisms of other cultures. This is problematic if the goal is to expand veganism beyond middle-class white spaces.

Most people go vegan and stay vegan because of their concern for other animals. Bey’s health-centric, flexitarian approach does not alter this research-supported fact. But Bey also has a wider cultural influence and represents a nonwhite consumer base that has been traditionally overlooked by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. I am interested to see if her efforts will contribute to the larger discourse. I am also deeply supportive of women of color who have the “audacity” to be political in a white-dominated cultural landscape. Celebrity persuasion is far from perfect, but it can contribute to the destigmitization of veganism. This cultural normalcy was The Vegan Society’s aim all along.

 


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Readers can learn more about the racial politics 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 – 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.

 


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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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.


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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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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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 – 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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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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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.

 


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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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.

 


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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