The Social Psychology of Veganism – Fear-Framed Persuasion

"Not Ready to Meat Your Maker? Fight Obesity: GO VEGAN. PETA." Image of a pot pie in the shape of a coffin; font used is gothic in white and blood red.

Fear creates vulnerability which, in turn, facilitates response. For this reason, fear tactics are often applied in public health campaigns such as those designed to curb smoking and tanning. One French study found that fear-arousing images on television altered youth attitudes towards alcohol consumption. Another study found that two-thirds of participants who viewed a fear-framed message about breast cancer got a mammogram within 12 months (versus only one half of the sample who viewed the positive message).

Importantly, if an alternative plan or solution is offered, a fear-framed message will be more effective. So, for instance, vegan campaigning that stokes fear about the consumption of Nonhuman Animal products as linked to chronic health problems should also highlight plant-based alternatives as the solution. Likewise, framing messages as something gained rather than lost is more useful. Rather than emphasize what vegans must give up, campaigning should emphasize the ethical benefits and the variety of tempting plant-based foods available.

As with eliciting good feelings, negative feelings, too, can backfire if they push audiences to adopt veganism without having to seriously consider the message. Implicit attitude change is rarely as deeply rooted and lasting as explicit, cognitively-involved attitude change. Finally, persuasion that banks on social stigma to scare audiences into compliance also runs into trouble by engaging the very ideologies of oppression the movement wishes to undermine. PETA’s advertisements (such as the fat-shaming one pictured above) are notorious for making this mistake.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Fear tactics should be presented with alternatives to undesirable behavior
  • Frame messages as something gained, not lost
  • Utilize fear tactics carefully to avoid weak behavior change or recidivism
  • Avoid the employment of stigma and discrimination as a fear tactic


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Maddux, J. and R. Rogers. 1983. “Protection Motivation and Self-Efficacy: A Revised Theory of Fear Appeals and Attitude Change.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 19: 469-479.

O’Keefe, D. and J. Jensen. 2011. “The Relative Effectiveness of Gain-Framed and Loss-Framed Persuasive Appeals Concerning Obesity-Related Behaviors: Meta-Analytic Evidence and Implications.” In R. Batra, P. Keller, and V. Strecher (Eds.), Leveraging Consumer Psychology for Effective Health Communications: The Obesity Challenge (pp. 171-185). Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Ruiter, R., C. Abraham, and G. Kok. 2001. “Scary Warnings and Rational Precautions: A Review of the Psychology of Fear Appeals.” Psychology and Health 16: 613-630.


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.

This essay was originally published on The Examiner in 2012.