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What Social Psychology Can Tell Us About Abolitionist Social Change by Corey Wrenn


A new trend in welfare reform is the reliance on social psychology to support a regulatory approach.  Groups like Vegan Outreach and Farm Sanctuary draw on social psychology theory to make it appear as if they are grounding their stances and actions in scientific research.  But, in actuality, they are pulling on research to support what they already do.  It’s no surprise then, that welfare reform is not achieving any meaningful change despite foundations in several decades of social psychological research.  This is an unfortunate waste of a truly valuable tool.  Social psychology does have much to say in how we might effectively advocate, but welfare organizations only twist the findings to support their favored (but failing) tactics.

For example, "foot in the door" theory argues that if you can persuade someone to make one small change they will be more likely to accept larger requests in the future.  The idea is that attitudes are formed from behaviors (not the other way around as we like to think).   So, for example, you convince someone to put a sticker in their window supporting your cause, if you later ask them to put a sign in their yard or even to volunteer to support your cause, you will be much more successful.  The reason is that people will adjust their attitude to reflect their behavior.  They supported your cause in putting your sticker in their window, now they begin to feel more positive and emotionally invested and will see further requests as congruent with their previous behavior and their changing attitude.

Farm Sanctuary uses foot-in-the-door to exemplify why welfare reform supposedly works.  If we ask the industry to make a small change, say, make cages 5% bigger, exploiters will supposedly come to view themselves as interested in animal welfare and will be more willing to make larger changes in the future.  This is because they would rationalize that further changes would align with past changes.  These changes would also align with the attitudes formed from that initial behavior change.  Remember that attitude tends to follow behavior.  If our behaviors and attitudes are misaligned, then we feel dissonance.  So, to avoid that dissonance in favor of consistent behaviors and attitudes, exploiters would concede to bigger and bigger changes.  Farm Sanctuary must presume that exploiters will some day concede to the greatest change of all and put themselves out of business.  To say this is unlikely is an understatement.

It is strange, but no surprise, that Farm Sanctuary chooses to apply foot-in-the-door phenomenon to their preexisting tactics.  But could we not apply this theory more realistically?  Why not focus on those who have already gone vegetarian and ask them to go vegan?  We might also ask those who have gone vegan for health or environmental reasons to adopt an ethical stance as well.  After all, the foot is already in the door, they’ve made a change.  They should be ripe for further change.  This is one reason why Vegan Outreach and other organizations rightly target college students—their foot is already in the door to liberal and rational thinking.  We might utilize this theory in appealing to preexisting attitudes about companion animals, human equality, and unnecessary suffering.  Many people already think fondly of the cats and dogs in their life, believe in egalitarianism, and do not want nonhumans so suffer needlessly.  These are easy springboards into abolitionist animal rights.  Abolitionists might also see advocates of companion animals and welfare reform as having their foot in the door.  They might be more conducive to attitude change than we may realize.* 

Irregardless of the potential for improving outreach effectiveness, the animal rights industry only uses these concepts to promote their status quo activism.  In another example, Vegan Outreach (despite their name) avoids advocating for veganism and instead pushes arbitrarily-defined reductionism.  Drawing on social psychology, they claim this is to break down a ma....  Once a person reduces their nonhuman animal consumption (whatever that requires, it seems to be up to the individual to decide--it could mean leaving bacon bits off a salad or ordering one cheeseburger instead of two), that person's "foot is in the door" and they are expected to be more receptive to veganism.  But why does applying this theory to veganism necessarily lead to asking people to avoid chicken and pigs, give up “meat” a few meals or days a week, or requesting something even less demanding (or consistent for that matter)?

Why not have individuals sign up for a vegan mentoring program or a newsletter instead?  Why not ask them to try veganism for a month, then follow up with them and ask them to extend the period?  Alternatively, we might ask people to incrementally adopt veganism over a few weeks.   We might also be honest about the learning process of veganism and reiterate that veganism is an inherently incremental process.  It’s impossible for anyone to go vegan overnight, for instance, because there is a learning curve involved in navigating a speciesist society.  Many of us who go vegan make the initial change of omitting nonhuman animal products we are immediately aware of, only to later learn about hidden ingredients and other problems following that initial behavior change.  This is because our attitude has changed following the behavior, and we want our future behavior to support our past behavior and our new attitude.   So, why not ask people to go vegan to the best of their ability now, and push for increasing consistency later?  All of these approaches would be consistent with foot-in-the-door approach and seem infinitely more realistic in counteracting speciesism.

Vegan Outreach also draws on social psychology to insist that a reasoned argument for veganism is ineffective.  Instead, showing people “the hidden cruelty” (presumably gruesome and disturbing images) will affect change in the appeal to one's emotions.  But this ignores a multitude of studies that argue the opposite.  Other social psychology research finds that 1) People can easily shut down to such information (Cooney 2011, Joy 2008), 2) People like to believe we live in a “just world,” where bad things only happen to those who deserve it.  Thus, people tend to blame the victim and ignore the injustice.  And in the case of adopting veganism, 3) People who are already conducive to change will be more likely to respond to a reasoned argument (Mika 2006).  Indeed, quite a bit of research has been done on the efficacy of moral shocks, and the results are inconclusive at best (Wrenn 2012).  But, like Farm Sanctuary, Vegan Outreach is cherry-picking social psychological research to support their long-standing approach that tends to be more effective for soliciting donations than for soliciting new vegans.

Animal welfare advocates who base much of their work in social psychology, like Nick Cooney and Melanie Joy, have received considerable fan fare in their ability to pick up research to support antiquated and counterproductive regulationist tactics.  Unfortunately, many abolitionist advocates ignore their work altogether, presuming that because the science is being ill-applied, that it must be worthless to us.  This is simply not true.  Research backs up the effectiveness of many social psychological theories favored by regulationists.  The problem is how we interpret and apply this theory.  A wealth of information is literally at our fingertips—easily accessible in books, websites, and journal articles.  It is my hope that abolitionists will be able to apply these theories and concepts in novel ways and not be turned off by their welfarist misapplications.   Though, it is also my hope that abolitionists not fall into the same trap of applying theories simply to support preexisting tactics.  We should be reflexive and willing to accept new approaches to our advocacy.

Works Cited

Cooney, N.  2011.  Change of Heart:  What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change.  Brooklyn, NY:  Lantern Books.

Joy, M.  2008.  Strategic Action for Animals:  A Handbook on Strategic Movement Building, Organizing, and Activism for Animal Liberation.  Brooklyn, NY:  Lantern Books.

Mika, M.  2006.  "Framing the Issue:  Religion, Secular Ethics and the Case of Animal Rights Mobilization."  Social Forces 85 (2):  915-941.

Wrenn, C. 2012.  Forthcoming.  "Resonance of Moral Shocks in Abolitionist Animal Rights Advocacy:  Overcoming Contextual Constraints."  Society & Animals.

*It should be noted that many common social psychological phenomena also work to keep regulationist advocates adamantly tied to their welfarist ideology.  People tend to pay heed only to information that supports their preexisting behaviors/attitudes; even contradictory and negating information can increase one's support for their original attitude/behavior.  For example, welfarists are bombarded with information that repeatedly suggests that welfare reform does not work, but they cling to it all the more fervently.  People also tend to exhibit confirmation bias--the tendency to seek out what confirms their beliefs and to avoid seeking out information that will disprove what they believe.  Finally, people tend to have a false assumption about other people agreeing with them, known as false consensus effect.  This could give an unsupported sense of correctness.  It is possible that a preexisting commitment to critical thinking would be necessary to overcome such barriers and push these advocates into abolitionism.

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Wikipedia says of Matt Ball that "Before founding Vegan Outreach, Ball obtained a degree in engineering from the Department of Forest Ecology at the University of Illinois, then a graduate degree from the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He held a research fellowship in the Department of Biology at the University of Pittsburgh." I am going to guess that Matt knows a little bit about critical thinking.

No problem Lucas. I get rather bothered those I lovingly call "faux-abolitionists". The way I see it, they haven't and never will abolish anything, because they haven't a clue about how to talk to people in order to create social change. As evidence, I point to the failure of Francione to establish a useful forum on his own website, and his repeated failures to keep any of his "bright stars" of the abolitionist movement within his orbit. If driving people away is how one builds a social movement, then Francione is the world's greatest builder of social movements. But, alas, driving people away isn't ever going to build anything at all.....

Lucas Hayes said:

Thanks for the clarification, Tim.
Tim Gier said:

I suppose that you think of me that I do "have complete disdain for anything abolitionist" Lucas, but, of course, you're wrong. I have disdain for posers who wear the label "abolitionist" like some badge of moral superiority, who wield it like a club to beat anyone who dares to disagree with the dogma of "faux-abolitionism".

Lucas Hayes said:

As someone who doesn't have complete disdain for anything abolitionist, I think Wrenn does make an interesting point in her essay: Social psychology and foot-in-the-door-theory can easily be applicable to vegan campaigning without having to resort to "arbitrarily-defined reductionism" or the promotion of welfare reforms.

You're right Carolyn, Ms. Wrenn is very very confused.

Carolyn Bailey said:

The author of this article seems very confused. She claims that:

“Vegan Outreach also draws on social psychology to insist that a reasoned argument for veganism is ineffective.  Instead, showing people “the hidden cruelty” (presumably gruesome and disturbing images) will affect change in the appeal to one's emotions.” 

Vegan Outreach actually changed their main leaflet both in name, to “Compassionate Choices”, and in imagery, so that it doesn't "shock" people with graphic photos on the cover. Inside it has page after page of "happy" animals before it ever shows the "factory farmed" ones, and even those photos are not graphic. They are not doing what the author claims they are doing at all, and it was research into the effects of graphic images that prompted them to change what they had previously been doing. 

It seems to me that the author has already decided what her conclusions will be and is focused on supporting her own deeply imbedded ideology, rather than presenting an accurate or even adequately researched piece about the topic. As well as over-simplifying the years of work of people like Nick Cooney and Melanie Joy, she presents “the other side” in the worst possible light, assuming that their intentions are evil in some way, and she ignores whatever is convenient for her to ignore in order to reach her conclusion. 

The author of this article admits that her main focus of vegan outreach/education is to criticise other advocates. I’m curious why anyone still takes anything she says at all seriously, assuming anyone does.  

Anyone who would like to understand what Nick Cooney, Dr. Melanie Joy or Farm Sanctuary really do think, might like to access the many resources on ARZone available to do so. 

Ms. Wrenn asks: "Why not have individuals sign up for a vegan mentoring program or a newsletter instead?  Why not ask them to try veganism for a month, then follow up with them and ask them to extend the period?  Alternatively, we might ask people to incrementally adopt veganism over a few weeks." Perhaps because one cannot "have individuals sign up for" anything that individuals haven't already decided that they might wish to do - that is, one cannot simply get people to do something because one wants them to, because one thinks that something would be best for others to do. What Ms. Wrenn has missed in her "analysis" is the essential point of the 'foot-in-the-door' approach. That is, if it was as easy to get people to adopt veganism for a month as just asking them to try it, then there would be no need for the 'foot-in-the-door' approach in the first place. But very few people are willing to even try veganism for a day, never mind a month, because they don't identify as vegans, and they see veganism as inconsistent with the identity they do have. That's why asking people to "go vegan", when going vegan is presented as a "moral imperative", as the only possible solution to a problem, will likely have the effect of causing people to reject not only the solution, but to deny the problem as well. In any case, why does Ms. Wrenn assume that people like Nick Cooney, Melanie Joy, Matt Ball, and many others haven't considered her approach? I will assume that it's because she hasn't actually tried to understand what those people are saying, she just wants to disagree with them.


Ms. Wrenn would do herself and her readers a big favor if before writing any more on the subject of social psychology she opened her mind a little bit in order to at least have a chance at comprehending that subject.

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