Monday, May 25, 2015

Animal-First Advocacy, Part 1

I'm finishing up a report on the University of Arizona research done this past Spring semester. You can see the slides of the opening presentation I gave; below is a summary of that presentation and the subsequent conversation.

Something was wrong.
As I worked through my prepared remarks to a class of 20 graduate students at the University of Arizona, I sensed a distinct lack of interest. Funny slides went by without even a chuckle. My questions went ignored. Many in the audience simply looked down – not to take notes, but simply because they weren’t engaged.
I went to my emergency procedure, asking:
“How many of you have had a bad vegan experience?”
To my left, the professor laughed.
Only later, after the class had ended and all the lingering students had left, did the professor tell me they hadn’t wanted me there. When she had discussed the class topic and my visit in the opening class the previous week, the consensus was, “Vegans are angry. Vegans are fanatics. Vegans are unreasonable.” And “Vegans are nuts."
When I was standing in front of the class, of course, I didn’t know this. But having broken the ice with “bad vegan experience,” the questions came quickly. I did my best to emphasize that my only goal was to reduce suffering as much as possible. For example: I’d rather that three people ate half as many animals than have one person go vegan. This both saves more animals, and each meat reducer has more potential for further change.
One of the early questions was, “Do you think all killing is wrong?” In a twist on the Socratic method, I replied, “What do you think my answer will be?”
“That all killing is wrong.”
“And what do you think?”
“Not all killing is wrong. Mercy killings, for example.”
Well, yes, I agreed. I would never keep a dog or cat alive if the rest of their life was only going to be suffering. I’ve experienced times when I’ve wanted to die; if I knew all I had to look forward to was more suffering, I’d want the option to end it.
And yes, I admitted the general treatment of different species does vary. I’d much rather be reincarnated as a cow destined to be slaughtered for beef than as a chicken being raised for meat (to make it fair, one would have to be reincarnated ~250 times as a chicken – a truly hellish scenario – to provide the same amount of “meat” as a cow).
As the students realized I wasn’t there to preach at them (one told me later this is what they were expecting), but instead to have an honest exploration of the issues, the questions got deeper. For example: No, I’d rather not exist at all than be a factory farmed chicken or pig. But I don’t know if non-existence would be preferable to the life of any cow in any circumstance.
This entire time, I knew some fellow vegans would strongly disagree with my shades of grey answers. But the point wasn’t to reinforce an easy, black-and-white worldview. My goal was to get these non-vegan students to take all animals seriously, to really consider the issues and the implications of their choices, and to frame their research in an honest, constructive manner.
It worked. Over and over, someone would say, “I never thought of it that way.” “I never considered that.” “No one has ever put it like that before.” “I can see that.” Previously, they had all “known” – and had rejected out-of-hand – the caricature of the vegan worldview (all killing wrong, honey as bad as veal, etc.). But this was a different ballgame.

The discussion went on and on, respectful, insightful, and sincere. It went on after the class was supposed to end, but no one left. Eventually, the professor stepped in, but students stayed around to ask more questions. Since then, I’ve been contacted by many of them who had additional questions or who want to talk more.
In the end, the class wasn’t a “vegan experience,” good or bad. It was a discussion about normally unseen animals, the individuals these students rarely (or never) considered previously.
The professor – not a vegetarian but sympathetic – was surprised and pleased: “You won them over. You really won them over.”

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Changing People's Minds

This This American Life podcast is very interesting, especially the first story. Just shows, once again, how important a positive example is, and how screaming and anger won't change people's minds.

UPDATE: Turns out the data was faked for this. Yikes!
Thanks to Brendon Brewer for noting this.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Even on the Far Right

While retrospective judgment tends to make us feel superior to our ancestors, it should really evoke humility. Surely some contemporary practices will be deemed equally abominable by succeeding generations. The only question is: Which ones?

I’ve long thought it will be our treatment of animals. I’m convinced that our great-grandchildren will find it difficult to believe that we actually raised, herded and slaughtered them on an industrial scale — for the eating.

-Charles Krauthammer 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Definitely Worth a Read

I shared this article by Josh Tetrick with a friend, and she said: "Thanks for sharing, that's one of the best vegan perspectives I've read in a long time. It's totally true and I wish more activists would realize that."

People Aren't the Problem

PS: May the Fourth be with you!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nick Cooney on Optimal Messaging for Animals

A Rose by Any Other Name?

What Psychology Research Can Tell Us about Messaging

By Nick Cooney, author of Change of Heart

As a longtime leafleter, one of the questions that I have to answer before going out to spread the message of compassion is, which booklet should I use? Sure they’re all pretty much the same on the inside, but the titles and the front covers are very different.

If my purpose in leafleting was to express my own beliefs as accurately as possible, I’d hand out a "vegan"-branded booklet every time. After all, I do want everyone to go vegan. But expressing my own beliefs isn’t the reason I go leafleting. I leaflet because I want to change other people’s behaviors so as to help animals. So the question of which booklet to use is now a very different one: “Which booklet will create the most behavior change, thereby sparing the greatest number of farmed animals a lifetime of suffering?”

Each of us probably has our own gut instinct about which booklet is most effective. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our gut instincts when choosing which booklet to use. Decades of psychology research into what does (and does not) motivate people to change their behavior can give us some scientific insight. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you about a homeless man named Harold.

Psychology researcher Laura Shaw and her colleagues set up a study in which student participants were told about the Friend In Need program, a university program pairing students with homeless people. Student participants were told about Harold Mitchell, a Friend In Need client who became homeless three years ago after losing his job due to illness. Some students were told that a large request would be made of them: that they volunteer six hours of their time to work directly with Harold. Other students were told they would be asked to volunteer just one hour of their time stuffing envelopes. A third group of students was not told that any request would be made of them. All of the students were then instructed to choose which message about Harold they would rather hear: a calm, information-only message about Harold’s needs, or an emotional appeal that detailed what Harold was going through and the suffering it had caused him.

The students who expected that only a small request would be made of them (one hour stuffing envelopes), and those who did not expect any request would be made of them, did not care which appeal they heard. It did not matter to them whether they were moved by Harold’s story, because they didn’t have much to lose. On the other hand, students who were told they would be asked to spend a long time volunteering with Harold did not want to hear the emotional appeal. They did not want to hear detailed accounts of what Harold was going through and the suffering that his homelessness caused him. Why? Because if they heard the details of Harold’s life they would probably feel sympathy for him, and might end up agreeing to volunteer six hours to help him. Better for them to just turn off their emotional switches and not be moved by Harold’s plight – after all, who wants to give up six hours of their life? (Shaw, Batson and Todd 1994).

The phenomenon researchers were examining is called empathy avoidance and it boils down to this: when we think that having sympathy for someone might inconvenience us, we try to avoid feeling sympathy. We leafleters experience this firsthand all the time. Who among us hasn’t handed a booklet to a passerby, only to hear them exclaim seconds later: “I don’t want to look at this! It’s going to make me stop eating meat!” And into the trash can the booklet goes.

So, you may be wondering, just what does empathy avoidance have to do with booklets? People who receive an explicitly "vegan" or "vegetarian" booklet know as soon as they receive it that a very large request is going to be made of them: that they change their diet dramatically. They’d have to find new foods to eat, new restaurants to go to, new grocery stores to shop at, and so forth. Because they know a large request is being made of them, they will not want to read the emotional appeal on the inside of the pamphlet. The saddening stories of pigs, chickens, and cows subjected to intense cruelties in factory farms would stir up their sympathy, and could cause them to – gasp – give up meat. As a result of empathy avoidance, people who get a booklet with one of these titles should be more likely to throw it away without opening it to read through the message inside.

On the other hand, people who receive a booklet without the word "vegan" in the title or on the back page either don’t know what is being asked of them yet, or don’t think that a particularly large request is being made. They’ll be more likely to read through the contents of the pamphlet because they don’t feel like they have much to lose by doing so. It’s only after reading through pages of photos and information about the cruelties of factory farming that they then come to the message encouraging them to change their diet. By that point the booklet has already stirred up their empathy for farmed animals, hopefully enough so that they can’t say no to our request that they change their diet.

Studies on empathy avoidance aren’t the only ones that suggest that booklets without the word "vegan" or "vegetarian" should be significantly more effective at changing people’s diets. For example, communication researchers have found that when people learn someone is about to try to convince them of something important, they become less likely to be persuaded (Freedman and Sears 1965; Allyn and Festinger 1961). Why is this the case? Researchers theorize that knowing a particular message is coming gives people the opportunity to drum up counter-arguments in their heads, and to look for biases the speaker may have. Whatever the reason, the takeaway is that booklets with more vague titles are likely to be more persuasive. People who receive one aren’t immediately sure of what they’re being encouraged to do, so they don’t have the ability to automatically start discrediting the message.

Whew! Who knew leafleting could be so complicated? Yet if we want to create as much behavior change as possible, in order to reduce as much suffering as possible, we need to think carefully about the message we use. Do we just want to express our own beliefs, or do we want to use the message that is most likely to persuade others? Even if non-V-word booklets are just 10% more effective (and my guess is they are dramatically more effective), switching to them in your own outreach will mean a life or death difference for thousands if not tens of thousands of farm animals.

Thanks for reading, and happy leafleting!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Feedback on How Vegan

After Our Hen House posted "How Vegan," they received this feedback:

The article posted today just brought tears to my eyes! It couldn't have come at a better time. I've been struggling with veganism for a while, as I find it so hard to figure out how far to go to figure out what is vegan, how much effort I need to put into ordering at a restaurant, if what I'm doing makes a difference, and if I'm doing enough. It's been a long month or so of soul-searching and questioning. And then this article! It reminded me of why I became vegan ... to lessen the suffering of animals. And renewed my commitment to keep my focus on that. To do whatever is in my power to advocate for animals. And this is why I love Our Hen House. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ginny on Obsession with Celebrities

Ginny has a great new post up: Celebrities, Weight Loss and Penn Jillette’s New Vegan Diet.
Brief excerpt:
[Penn's] current diet doesn’t exactly create a compelling picture of the joys of vegan living. In fact, it sounds like a great way to discourage people from ever considering this way of eating.  
I have to say, I simply do not get this “celebrities and weight loss” brand of vegan activism. It sets vegan diets up to fail, because that’s what happens when vegans (especially those in the public eye) get sick or gain back their weight or start eating meat and eggs again. It presents veganism as the most unattractive eating plan on earth. And it turns its back on the core value of veganism, which is animal rights.

Cross posted at VegFund blog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

An Environmental Argument to Help Animals

Many, if not most, environmental arguments tend to focus on the serious impacts of beef. Although we  see a vegan diet as optimal, most people instead see chicken as being vastly superior to beef (and increasingly cheaper than beef). Any time someone replaces beef with chicken, many many more animals suffer.

Here is a great argument that actually helps chickens, from New Scientist (March 21, 2015, p. 44):
Such a switch [from chickens to plant-based substitutes] could make a difference to the environment: if we all swapped chicken for beans, for example, greenhouse gas emissions would be much lower. Chicken is responsible for 6.9 kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat, compared with 2 kg for bean protein.

 Cross-posted at the VegFund blog

Monday, April 13, 2015

How Social Media Distracts

In response to the earlier Ego post, my good friend Leslie passed along this article. Excerpts:

“When the focus of our social efforts begins and ends with “raising awareness” through social media, we can’t help but become sucked into the general “me” or ego-based nature of internet politics in general. It’s all about “my” page, “my” online community, and “my” followers—while things like “our” cause, “our” struggle, or “our” progress take on a more rhetorical significance for when we want to engage more people in our individual expressions.

“In this type of egocentric cultural climate, it can be easy for activists to completely lose perspective. When we get too caught up in the reblogs, retweets, and ‘likes,’ we risk the content of our messages being overshadowed by the perception that people have of us as individuals who happen to be outspoken about these matters.”

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Problem of Ego

As you know, VegFund and other groups do a lot of video outreach: online advertising, pay-per-view, and screening documentaries. Research has shown this is an important and powerful tool.

I recently received a comment from a longtime vegan and advocacy supporter, who said that since they see almost a video a day, they didn't see what good it would do to create another video, or pay people to watch a video.

You surely see the problem with this logic: our audience shouldn't be plugged-in long-time vegans. Rather, we need to reach new people - those who are not on any vegan mailing list or a member of any animal advocacy Facebook group. For the most part, non-vegetarians are actively looking to avoid any uncomfortable information. We have to go to them with information that will actually open their heart and mind.

Choosing the right message for new people is, of course, a significant problem for advocates in general: Consciously or unconsciously, we want our message to match with our morals and justify our lifestyle. We judge everything based on what we know and what we want.

However, we must understand that a message that excites us isn't the optimal message to get more new people to take a significant and meaningful step to help animals. We - longtime vegans - are in a much different place than someone who has followed the standard American diet their entire life.

To really make a difference for animals, we must reach new people where they are, rather than seeking "Likes" within the vegan bubble.