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!