The Social Psychology of Veganism – Reason and Emotion

In vegan advocacy, there is some degree of contention regarding the use of reasoned arguments (such as intellectual appeals or theory) and emotional arguments (using images or descriptions that create emotional reactions). Research supports that the utility of reason and emotion in advocacy depends on the audience. If the audience is analytically minded, they will probably be more responsive to a rational approach. Peripheral information may be more useful for audiences that are uninterested in the message.

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement certainly utilizes both reason and emotion to persuade. Theoretical arguments may dominate the academic realm of anti-speciesism, but social movement organizations rely quite heavily on emotional appeals with graphic or shocking imagery and celebrity endorsements. Again, the nature of the audience will determine the effectiveness of emotional appeals. As one example, some research indicates that graphic Nonhuman Animal rights imagery is more effective with liberal audiences and less effective on conservative religious audiences.

Emotion tends to be the greatest incentive for behavioral change, but using emotion to persuade can be tricky. For one, a reliance on peripheral cues and emotional appeals means that participants are recruited without having to understand the issues. Consider a charity to feed children in Africa: sad images and brief appeals are made to successfully encourage viewers to donate money. This may spark action, but Western viewers are not encouraged to understand the structural causes for this suffering and how their participation in globally exploitative or politically oppressive practices may actually be aggravating the problem. Viewers don’t know exactly why hunger in Africa manifests or if donating schemes are really the best solution, but the morally shocking images persuade them to act.

In Nonhuman Animal rights, there is real potential for new recruits to fall into familiar, but unproductive reform-oriented pathways. New advocates who are burdened with the traumatic knowledge of exploitation are often frantic, furious, and desperate to do something for other animals “right now.” Because emotional tactics are favored by reformist organizations, welfare reform becomes the default response for new vegans. This is not to say that emotions are not powerful motivators in social movement mobilization, but they should be used cautiously.


For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Choose reason or emotion based on audience
  • Peripheral cues helpful for an uninterested audience
  • Take caution with emotional appeals given the predominance of welfare ideology


Cacioppo et al. 1983. “Effects of Need for Cognition on Message Evaluation, Recall, and Persuasion.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 45: 805-818.

Cacioppo et al. 1996. “Dispositional Differences in Cognitive Motivation: The Life and Times of Individuals Varying in Need for Cognition.” Psychological Bulletin 119: 197-253.

Chaiken, S. 1980. “Heuristic versus Systematic Information Processing and the Use of Source Versus Message Cues in Persuasion.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39: 752-766.

Edwards, K. 1990. “The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Attitude Formation and Change.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 59: 202-216.

Fabrigar and Petty. 1999. “The Role of the Affective and Cognitive Bases of Attitudes in Susceptibility to Affectively and Cognitively Based Persuasion.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25: 363-381.

Hovland et al. 1949. Experiments on Mass Communication. Studies in Social Psychology in World War II (Vol. 3). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Monteiro, C. 2012. “The Effects of Graphic Images on Attitudes Towards Animal Rights.” Action Reports, FARM.

Petty et al. 1981. “Personal Involvement as a Determinant of Argument-Based Persuasion.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41: 847-855.

Wrenn, C. 2013. “Resonance of Moral Shocks in Abolitionist Animal Rights Advocacy: Overcoming Contextual Constraints.” Society & Animals 21 (4): 379 – 394.


This essay was originally published on The Examiner in 2012.

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.