The Animal-Free Food Movement Should Move Towards An Institutional Message

Note: This post is written from the perspective of effective altruism: working to make the greatest positive impact in the world by using evidence and reason. For an introduction to the subject, visit effectivealtruism.org.

In the 1800s, the American public saw vegetarianism as a strange, puritanical lifestyle. Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg — a minister and medical doctor now known for their crackers and breakfast cereal, respectively — advocated a bland vegetarian diet to improve health, reduce sexual desire, and ward off immoral tendencies. They also recommended abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, vibration therapy, and frequent enemas. While this made vegetarianism popular with the most ascetic, purity-driven, and health-dedicated part of the population, it locked vegetarianism into the public consciousness as an unusual diet for people who wanted to be ‘holier than thou.’

Fortunately, the times are changing! Modern advocates for animal rights, veganism, and animal-free food like the Vegan Bros show consumers that veg eating is compatible with being cool and a “bro.” Public intellectuals are hopping on board, such as Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and author who recently identified as a “vegetarian … and aspiring vegan.” We’ve seen a remarkable transition, and the increased number of vegans, vegetarians, and even reducetarians is making a substantial impact for animals, their health, and the planet. However, I want to argue that we should shift our message even further away from the 1800s lifestyle movement. To do the most good given the many benefits of an animal-free food system, I think we need to favor institutional messaging in our movement, making it clear that we want society as a whole to change, not just individual consumers.

The Good Food Institute, a new nonprofit promoting clean (i.e. cultured) and plant-based meat, milk, and eggs, is already using institutional messaging. Their website and public messaging doesn’t focus on why you, as an individual consumer, should eat these new products. Instead, it asks you to help “create a better food system” and “disrupt animal agriculture.” While I’m sure GFI — and indeed all good food advocates — want each member of our audience to eat more animal-free foods, we must consider whether to emphasize that goal in our rhetoric, or our broader goal to have society as a whole shift away from animal farming.

Examples of individual messaging:

  • “You need to go vegan.”
  • “You should eat less meat.”

Examples of institutional messaging:

  • “We need to end animal farming.”
  • “America should eat less meat.”

Note that whether we favor individual or institutional messaging, there’s also the question of what scope to use, where encouraging meat reduction is relatively “small” and wanting to end animal farming is relatively “large.” I won’t go into this question here, but I personally lean in most cases towards messages with the scope of “end animal farming,” and I know reasonable people who favor both larger and smaller goals than that.

Historical precedent for institutional messaging

A natural place to look for evidence when strategizing for social impact is historical social movements, focusing on those that are most similar to the one we’re working on. While there’s no shortage of differences you can cite between the animal-free food movement and other movements, the question is not, “Are these movements very similar to ours?” but “What’s the best evidence we can find?” The animals need us to use all the evidence we can find to make the best decisions on their behalf, even if that evidence is weak.

One obvious conclusion is that the animal-free food movement has a virtually unprecedented focus on individual and consumer change. One of the few historical examples of a heavy consumer focus in the history of social movements is the “Free Produce Movement,” a contingent of anti-slavery activists who advocated for complete abstinence from slave-made goods. Similar to veganism, this was seen as reducing the economic power of slavery, signalling protest against slavery, and helping consumers maintain purity from the immoral institution.

This approach was most popular in the early 1800s in the United States. William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist, “proudly proclaimed” at a convention in 1840 that his suit was made with non-slave labor. However, by 1850, the movement lost much of its momentum as activists — including Garrison himself — decided there were more effective ways to fight slavery.

Some activists in the environmental movement feel similarly about “green consumerism,” the environmental movement’s take on a consumer-focused strategy. One popular argument against green consumerism has been that it makes potential activists complacent and therefore less likely to work on bigger changes like environmental policy efforts. This effect — known as “moral licensing” or “moral fatigue” — has some empirical evidence, although research is limited. My weak impression from people more involved is that the movement has been shifting over the years towards institutional, campaign-oriented messaging (e.g. “move beyond coal”) and away from both individual messaging (e.g. “please recycle”) and vague, broad institutional messaging (e.g. “save the earth”).

One potential counterexample to the historical precedent for institutional messaging is the success of public health movements such as anti-smoking, which seem to have mostly used individual messaging in their public outreach. The strength of this counterargument depends on how relevant you think the different movements are for understanding animal-free food advocacy. One key difference between anti-smoking and animal-free food advocacy is that the main impetus to shift towards an animal-free food system is usually either the environmental or animal rights arguments, while health is the most common anti-smoking argument.

Note that Compassion in World Farming, a leading farmed animal protection organization, published an interesting article on “What We Can Learn From The Anti-Smoking Movement.”

Avoiding the “collapse of compassion”

Both the audience and activists themselves in the animal-free food movement often suffer from the “collapse of compassion.” In social psychology, this refers to the low levels of compassion people tend to feel for big problems that affect many individuals. The leading explanation for this collapse is, “People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion.”

This suggests that we might be able to increase the compassion people feel towards large groups by making it clear that their problems are solvable, i.e. showing people a straightforward path to success, planting a flag, and illustrating a clear, achievable vision. Institutional messaging helps avoid the “collapse of compassion” by suggesting that we can make headway on the issue beyond what we achieve with our own diet. Changing only our own diet can be demotivating and seen as a mere drop in the bucket, while taking collective action feels more tractable and impactful. If many people are eating animal-free food, then the marginal consumer faces a much lower cost to jumping on the bandwagon.

It’s possible for someone to accept that institutional messaging succeeds in showing a path forward, but think that at least in the case of “we should end animal farming,” the proposed path is unrealistic. Some people might think an animal-free food system is seen as so implausible that individual messaging, which at least suggests that the outreach recipient can solve their own contribution to the problem, offers a more inspiring solution. They could also see institutional messaging as totalitarian or too aggressive for our audience to accept.

I think this is a valid counterargument, but my personal weighing of the evidence is that ultimately the “collapse of compassion” consideration weighs in favor of institutional messaging. Many people see the end of animal farming as somewhat realistic, especially given recent advances in food technology such as the “world’s first cultured meatball” and arguments like “how else will we feed the world by 2050.” Even animal agriculture industry publications have considered the possibility. Anecdotally, when I have seen institutional messaging used in practice, people have seen it as entirely realistic. However, this could be because it’s usually deep in the context of these promising technologies and compelling arguments, such as when discussing a new food technology with a reporter.

Evoking “moral outrage” and expressing the seriousness of the issue

Institutional messaging probably evokes more “moral outrage” than individual messaging. Moral outrage is roughly defined as “a special type of anger, one that ignites when people recognize that a person or institution has violated a moral principle (for example, do not hurt others, do not fail to help people in need, do not lie) and must be prevented from continuing to do so.”

Moral outrage is also described as “a response to the behavior of others, never one’s own.” It seems natural that institutional messaging would be more likely to spark the emotion because it puts the blame for the issue on an outside institution or one that the audience member is only a small part of, usually the animal agriculture industry or society as a whole. Because of this, institutional messaging could reduce the defensiveness we frequently encounter when talking about veganism and animal-free food.

Moral outrage seems to mediate people’s willingness to break from “system justification” — the tendency of people to justify, often irrationally, the status quo. This makes sense in theory and has some empirical evidence. Given how common system justification is when people hear “go veg” messages, this could be a very important effect. Think of all the irrational arguments we vegans and vegetarians hear claims like “I can eat meat because lions do.”

It seems like anger, an emotion similar to but broader than moral outrage, is probably key for activist motivation. Again, most activists seem to agree with this in their own experiences, and there’s some limited evidence in the academic literature.

Finally, in addition to evoking more moral outrage, it’s likely that institutional messaging makes the audience view the issue as more serious, given that it’s so large in scope and urgent enough for us to be taking society-wide action. This could be very important. Consider that when people in the animal agriculture industry want to dismiss or minimize the messages of animal-free food advocates, they often emphasize that vegetarianism and veganism are personal choices on the individual level, and that people should be free to decide for themselves whether to abstain from animal products or to include them in their diet. Consumers do this sometimes too, saying, “I think it’s great that you’re vegan, but it’s my personal choice to eat meat.” Because individual messaging emphasizes the personal decision, using it actually creates our own counterargument! Moreover, it could lead to people thinking of veg eating as a trend or fad, which weakens the moral impetus behind it.

A recent case study that shows the prevalence and power of the personal choice rebuttal is the social media backlash the Good Food Institute received for their recent campaign to get In-N-Out to carry a veggie burger. For example, this Tweet suggests a negative reaction or rationalization based on the personal choice framing:

Because vegan food has been so strongly identified as an option, rather than as the goal, it’s easy to come up with counterarguments like this one. Of course, it’s also possible that these reactions would have been worse if the movement were favoring institutional messaging, and we should consider that while the animal-free food movement today mostly uses individual messaging, GFI itself seems to favor an institutional approach.

Peer pressure

There is abundant psychological evidence for the power of peer pressure, also known as social messaging, which is often used to persuade someone to take a certain action or have a certain belief by showing them that many of their peers, or authority figures, also take that action or have that belief. While both individual and institutional messaging can incorporate peer pressure, I think institutional messaging has more of this built-in because it necessarily communicates that other people are making changes and that helping farmed animals is a group effort.

This strategy is already used in other contexts the animal-free food movement. For example, Israel vegan activists organized a large march in 2015, which they advertised from the get-go as a 10,000 person demonstration. People were eager to join, and the claim that there would be a large number of attendees seemed to play an important role in that.

Moreover, personal labels like “vegetarian” are usually reserved in society for minority positions, so the emphasis on these labels with individual messaging could further reduce peer pressure. One counterargument to this is that a labeled minority leads to more peer pressure than an unlabeled minority, since the label might emphasize that other people also occupy that minority position.

An argument that cuts both ways: We could be biased in favor of one of these strategies

I think there’s good reason to think we’re biased in favor of individual messaging because of the general psychological desire for instant gratification, and we should account for this bias by updating slightly in favor of institutional messaging. Additionally, most animal advocates are currently using individual messaging, so there could be more status quo bias. However, there’s also a potential bias in favor of institutional change, where ambitious people like me might be too excited by the exciting prospect of very large-scale impact.

I’m hesitant to give the arguments in either direction much weight. First, I think bias arguments are very easily misused and misapplied, including in the effective altruism community, since they are often so difficult to soundly refute and give arguers an opportunity to tie personal attacks into their “rational” argumentation. Second, I think bias arguments are relatively weak once we’ve done in-depth research into the object-level arguments, even to the depth of this blog post.

If I had to pick a direction for this argument, all things considered, I suspect the instant gratification concern — which points in favor of individual messaging — is slightly more powerful.

Counterargument: Individual messaging has a clearer call to action and promising spillover benefits

While institutional messaging can include specific calls to action, including individual diet change, individual messaging has more of a built-in call to action. Individual change is something you can do immediately in an obvious way, while institutional change is more vague and long-term. The clarity of the individual focus could make the outreach recipient more likely to act on that call to action, perhaps because people who hear an institutional message might agree with the message but not fully realize they can help by changing their diet. For example, they could think they should just wait until better animal-free foods are developed.

Having more people make the initial step of diet change could lead to substantial spillover benefits. For example, there is some empirical evidence that eating animal products leads people to think animals have less sophisticated mental capacities, likely due to the cognitive dissonance of thinking that animals have rich mental lives but also eating them. The attitude shift from reducing that dissonance could lead to more activist involvement and long-term diet change.

Another spillover benefit is that short-term change, or at least chains of impact that involve measurable short-term outcomes (e.g. caring more about animals this month, if that predictably leads to increased activism a year later), has short feedback loops. This means that if you are spreading messages over and over, such as handing out many leaflets, you can repeatedly measure the impact and modify your strategy based on the outcomes. For example, you could vary whether you ask people to “go vegan” or “go vegetarian” and then measure which one actually leads to more diet change. It is harder to do this when your outcome is long-term without a clear short-term proxy for that outcome. Proponents of long-term impact might respond to this by saying that there are usually good proxies, such as attitude change to predict whether someone becomes an activist one year down the road.

Finally, given how small the animal-free food movement currently is, institutional change might be so intractable that perhaps the best thing we can do right now is to promote individual change, increasing the number of vegans and vegetarians so that we can create institutional change later when we have more public support.

Mixed messaging

It is also possible, especially when given a lot of time to explain things like in a personal conversation, to mix and match the two types of messaging, telling people something like to “Help end animal farming: go vegan!” Some specific mix of the two types might capture the benefits without the downside, such as campaigning for an end to battery cages and emphasizing that individuals can take action through protests, contacting government officials, or other forms of activism.

Implications of favoring institutional messaging

All things considered, I think this tentative preponderance of evidence is quite significant for guiding our messaging decisions as effective altruists. There’s also an associated conclusion I hope to write more about later, that we should spend marginal effectiveness-focused resources on institutional interventions, e.g. campaigns that generate national media attention, getting companies and institutions to change their food policies, over individual interventions, e.g. leafleting, online ads. The arguments for and against institutional interventions are very similar to the arguments regarding our messaging.

I think focusing on institutional messaging and interventions is the most important underappreciated conclusion in the effective altruism for animals space. Also, I’ve spoken with a few other impact-focused animal advocates about this conclusion, and there seems to be agreement that the evidence points towards institutional messaging in most cases.

Finally, I want to qualify this conclusion by saying I don’t think we should stop using individual messaging, or that no animal advocates should focus on that message, just that I favor institutional messaging with marginal resources.

What do you think? Does the totality of this evidence point in favor of individual or institutional messaging on the margin? Should shifting further in the favored direction be a high priority for animal-free food advocates?