The Social Psychology of Veganism – Social Responsibility Norm

The norm of social responsibility finds that people will help even when there is no expectation of reciprocation and even when that help remains anonymous. There are two stipulations, however. First, the person or group needing help must be perceived as unable to control their circumstances, and, second, the situation must be one that garners sympathy.

That social responsibility is a shared norm is good news for social movements everywhere, but particularly so for vegan activists, as the heavy work invested into advancing the interests of other animals often has limited returns. However, vegans can increase participation by engaging the social responsibility norm. This can by highlighting how other animals are truly victims with very little control over their circumstances. Recall a previous article on the just-world phenomenon, humans tend to blame victims, meaning that Nonhuman Animals are often framed as “stupid,” ugly, hateful, or otherwise deserving of their exploitation and death. Countering these stereotypes by restoring personhood to these animals should thus be prioritized.

Secondly, arousing sympathy is necessary to evoke the social responsibility norm. Restoring Nonhuman Animal personhood is a major step in accomplishing this, but activists should also not shy completely from describing conditions (even “humane” conditions) experienced by Nonhuman Animals hurt by human supremacy. The utilization of emotion is immensely useful in mobilizing activists, and surely this is related to how narratives, photographs, and images can elicit sympathy. Keep in mind, however, that a message too heavily reliant on emotion might only be useful in creating superficial, short-lived change. For this reason, mindfully partnering emotional appeals with rational appeals should be most successful.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Create a feeling of social responsibility
  • Emphasize that Nonhuman Animals are unable to help themselves
  • Use descriptions of suffering to garner sympathy
  • Counter negative stereotypes about other animals


Berkowitz, L.  1972.  “Social Norms, Feelings, and Other Factors Affecting Helping and Altruism.”  In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 6).  New York:  Academic Press.

Rudolph, U., S. Roesch, T. Greitenmeyer, B. Weiner.  2004.  “A Meta-Analytic Review of Help-Giving and Aggression From an Attributional Perspective:  Contributions to a General Theory of Motivation.”  Cognition and Emotion 18:  815-848.

Schwartz, S.  1975.  “The Justice of Need and the Activation of Humanitarian Norms.”  Journal of Social Issues 31 (3):  111-136.

Shotland, R. and C. Stebbins.  1983.  “Emergency and Cost as Determinants of Helping Behavior and the Slow Accumulation of Social Psychological Knowledge.” Social Psychology Quarterly 46:  36-46.

Weiner, B.  1980.  “A Cognitive (Attribution)-Emotion-Action Model of Motivated Behavior:  An Analysis of Judgements of Help-Giving.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39:  186-200.


This essay was originally published with 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.