When People Ignore Their Own Moral Standards

A recent study examined how people’s moral behavior is shaped by market forces. This experiment is of particular interest to vegans and advocates of veganism. You will soon see why.

A press release about the study begins:
Many people express objections against child labor, exploitation of the workforce or meat production involving cruelty against animals. At the same time, however, people ignore their own moral standards when acting as market participants, searching for the cheapest electronics, fashion or food. Thus, markets reduce moral concerns. This is the main result of an experiment conducted by economists from the Universities of Bonn and Bamberg. The results are presented in the latest issue of the renowned journal ‘Science’.” [emphasis added]
Here is an outline of how the experiment was conducted, as I understand it. Researchers split participants into three groups:
  1. One group was offered 10 Euros to let the mouse be killed; or they could refuse the money and let the mouse live
  2. Another group was allowed to sell a mouse to someone else who would kill the mouse (in this way they could get more or less than 10 Euros); or they could refuse to sell the mouse and keep the mouse alive
  3. The third group was allowed to sell the mouse to any number of willing buyers who would kill the mouse
Now, there are some details I’d like to share about the experiment and the mice before we move on to the study results. These raise questions about how we can study real moral issues in an ethical way. I’ll let your mind ponder on that without commentary. Here are the mice details: The mice were lab mice bred for another experiment. They were healthy but not suitable for the first experiment and thus the mice were scheduled for euthanasia. Participants in this study about moral behavior and markets were shown a video of the euthanizing process that would be used to kill the mice. From what I understand about this economics study, the mice who were “saved” by study participants were in fact actually saved. The number of study participants who refused to accept the money or participate in market trades equaled the number of mice who were purchased from the lab and were given safe permanent homes.

But that number was relatively small. Of the 124 participants in the first group, 46 percent accepted the money and allowed a mouse to be killed. In the second group 72 percent of the sellers were willing to have the mouse killed in exchange for money. In the third group, 76 percent of sellers in this third group chose to accept the money despite the fact that it resulted in a mouse-killing.
They tested these results against a more morally neutral commodity, coupons. That is, they performed this same experiment but instead of using mice, they used coupons. Participants could keep or sell their coupon. They found that people’s behavior did not shift as much when engaged in the choice to sell this morally neutral commodity as it did when offered the choice to sell mice. The researchers concluded that market interaction lowers moral values as compared to individual actions.
In the views of many philosophers, politicians, and economists this study didn’t teach us anything new, it simply provided more empirical evidence that economic markets can erode moral behavior. And the study raises other important questions, too.

It’s worth noting (and perhaps worth exploring in future studies) that in all the above scenarios, the amount of money was relatively small (under 20 Euros) indicating the relative ease with which people may exchange life for money. Furthermore, not only were more people willing to actively engage in selling their mice to a group of buyers/killers (than people willing to accept an offer to buy/kill their mice)… but also, this group of sellers received less money than the first group!

It appears that they perceived that the animals’ lives had less value when the animal had an obvious ”market value” with many active buyers trying to negotiate a deal than when the animal was simply an animal in their care with only one low-pressure offer. Clearly, the value of animals’ lives changes depending on whether or not the animal is viewed as a commodity. This isn’t merely the difference between viewing an animal as a pet or as a meal, this is more fundamentally about the difference between an animal with a price tag on his or her head versus an animal without a price tag attached. It doesn’t appear related to the species of the animal, his or her health, the animal’s ability to produce something useful for humans, tradition or culture, taste or fashion preferences, or any other reason. It was merely the price tag hung by market forces.

This study brings into question the ability of consumers to effect social change through ethical consumerism, specifically boycotts like veganism. One wonders if even people with strong morals struggle with maintaining those morals in amoral markets, perhaps there is no market solution to animal cruelty. Or perhaps the solution is wildly different than the one many vegans imagine. Either way, if we want a vegan world we need to do more than just be vegan ourselves.

Details about the study were gleaned from these sources:
This post was cross-posted at Vegan Soapbox

Veg Trends and Gender Differences

There is a common assumption that women are more likely to be vegetarian or vegan, but is that really true? Let’s take a look at the data…

A 2010 random Gallup poll of 1029 adults found that American men are more tolerant of animal abuse and exploitation than women, in general. Take a look:
“The sharpest differences between men and women on these issues are not found on abortion or other reproductive matters, but on three issues that involve the ethical treatment of animals. Majorities of men, but less than half of women, consider the use of animal fur for clothing, and medical testing on animals to be morally acceptable. Also, there is a 24-point gap between men and women in their belief that cloning animals is acceptable.”
(emphasis added, source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/137357/four-moral-issues-sharply-divide-americans.aspx )
If that’s the case then it seems that women might be more likely to be veg*n than men. But take a look at this study done by Harris Interactive of 1010 American adults:
“Seventeen percent of Americans stated they ‘don’t eat meat, fish, seafood, or poultry at many of my meals (but less than half the time),’ and 16 percent don’t eat these foods at more than half of their meals (but not all the time). Thus, one-third (33 percent) of the country is eating vegetarian meals a significant amount of the time. That’s in addition to vegetarians!
Approximately 5 percent of the country say that they never eat meat, fish, seafood, or poultry, which makes them vegetarian. Approximately half of these vegetarians are also vegan; that is, they also don’t eat dairy or eggs. Note that we had respondents select ‘I never eat meat, fish, seafood, or poultry’ or ‘I never eat meat, fish, seafood, poultry, dairy, or eggs.’ Because we use the word ‘never’ and give the definition rather than having respondents self-define, our numbers may be lower than other polls. We also did not ask about honey, which would most likely give a lower figure for the number of vegans.
There is a misconception that more women than men are vegetarian, but it appears that the split may be pretty even. A larger difference shows up when looking at who is eating vegetarian meals one day per week or at many meals.”
(emphasis added, study link is here: http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2011issue4/vj2011issue4poll.php )
So, it’s about even. There are likely equal numbers of male vegans as there are female vegans with no significant gender difference. And that seems to be true from my personal experience. I know lots of vegetarians and vegans and the gender split is about equal.

Vegans… read on…

However, from the standpoint of veg activism we might want to focus more on one gender than the other. The data from the Harris study suggests that nonvegetarian women eat more vegetarian meals than nonvegetarian men OR that nonvegetarian women think they eat more vegetarian meals than nonvegetarian men, and so these women may be a good audience for a vegan message.

Does that mean vegan adocates ought to spend more time encouraging women to go veg because they represent the “lower-hanging fruit” and will increase our total numbers of veg*ns more quickly? Or does that mean advocates should work harder at convincing men to choose plant-based diets because they face the most obstacles and need our support more?

There’s a group called the Humane Research Council that collects data about animal issues and makes suggestions for activists so that we can be most effective. Their website is here: http://www.humaneresearch.org/ A study done by the Council in 2007 (3200 adults) to determine the most effective strategies to reduce farmed animal suffering and death found that “Females are the majority of all key meat reduction segments“. That study is online at http://www.humanespot.org/system/files/HRC_Veg_Study_2007.pdf (You will need a HRC account in order to access the data yourself).

But that’s not the end of the story. HRC actually suggests tailoring the veg message depending on the audience. They do not suggest reaching out only to women, rather they suggest that some reasons for veg*nism (animal welfare, health, or the environment) are more compelling to certain segments of the population than other reasons. So we’re really back to square one: It’s best to take an individualized approach to animal advocacy depending on the specific situation.

Crossposted at Vegan Soapbox: http://www.vegansoapbox.com/veganism-and-gender/

Meat Reduction Advocacy more effective than Vegan Advocacy?

From The Humane Research Council:
"One of the most important strategic decisions facing veg*n advocates is whether to emphasize meat reduction or the complete elimination of meat or other animal products. Veg*n advocates’ goals are, arguably, best served by seeking out and pursuing approaches that most quickly and sustainably lower U.S. adult demand for meat products. The survey results strongly suggest a meat reduction strategy would be effective, although even with this comprehensive research, it is impossible to pinpoint any one most effective strategy. There are about three times as many people willing to reduce their meat consumption by half as those who are willing to become vegetarians. Assuming each group is equally likely to change, if there are 1,000 adults in the target audience, advocates might be able to persuade 240 of them to reduce their meat consumption by half (24% of adults are potential semi-vegetarians), but only about 70 of them to eliminate meat from their diets (7% are potential vegetarians). In this example, advocating semi-vegetarianism would yield the largest reduction in meat consumed." (emphasis added)
Link: http://www.humanespot.org/system/files/HRC_Veg_Study_2007.pdf
(You will have to create a login to view the source directly)

There are obvious methodological issues with this study, namely that people who say they're willing to do something aren't always actually willing as well as the fact that people who "eat less meat" tend to eat less meat from large animals and still consume plenty of small animals (which means that the total number of animal lives saved is less significant). However, the central idea that people are more willing to make incremental change than large sweeping change is an important concept that's worth remembering whenever performing vegan education.

Vegan Paradox: unsupportive friends and family

An interesting finding from a recent survey: People who felt the least supported when they went vegan were more likely to stay vegan than people who felt more supported. Take a look at "Do vegans thrive in adversity?":
"In 2011 pledgers were asked at the end of the pledge about how difficult various challenges had been including “other’s attitudes” rated from 1 (very easy) to 5 (very difficult). Those who found other’s attitudes more difficult were more likely to stay vegan. Out of 49 pledgers, 13 gave a rating of 4 or 5 on the difficulty of other’s attitudes and all but one of these (92%) chose to stay vegan.""Why might those who found friends and family least supportive be the most likely to stay vegan? One obvious reason might be a third variable. Those who were most passionate about being vegan were most likely to stay vegan and also to have disagrements with others. Another reason might be that those who had trouble with lack of support or others’ attitudes became more committed to being vegan to better integrate with a new social community."
Of course, the sample size is small. And there's the issue of self-reporting. But this is interesting nonetheless.

"The Health Argument" for veganism

As a reminder...

Cultivate Research undertook a large, multi-phase research study including nine focus groups and a survey with 3,200 U.S. adults to investigate these segments and the motivations that affect their decisions to mitigate or halt their meat consumption. [...]

The research conducted during the course of this study clearly shows that increased health consciousness is one of the single most influential factors affecting the dietary choices and habits of the U.S. adult in today’s society. Cultivate Research has identified that a key reason for the growing importance of health is the aging of the U.S. population; and older consumers are more likely to be reducing meat as a component of moving toward a healthier diet. As the “baby boomer” population continues to age and these consumers become increasingly concerned about their personal health, we expect the population dynamics to shift even further in favor of meat reduction for the perceived health benefits. [...]

Cultivate Research conducted in-depth quantitative (the first phase phone survey) and qualitative (second phase focus groups) research to obtain a well-rounded understanding of the trends and motivations of consumers who limit their meat consumption. This project represents one of the most comprehensive research studies ever conducted about the attitudes and behaviors of U.S. adult consumers toward meat reduction and the consumption of meat and dairy alternative products.
Source: http://cultivateresearch.com/vol_1_VCT_Series_Overview.pdf

This, once again confirms, that "the health argument" for veganism is most appealing to older people whereas other arguments may be more appropriate for younger people.

Of course, it should be noted that the argument alone is not sufficient for veganism, as explained by Vegan Outreach and Ginny Messina. The health benefits traditionally associated with veganism can often be obtained through the consumption of small amounts of lowfat animal products and large amounts of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables (a "flexitarian" diet). Likewise, small amounts of veggies meats are also an acceptable part of a healthy diet.

But what is important to note from the research cited above is this: Grocery stores, restaurants and other food-sellers selling vegan foods can probably profit most by emphasising the health benefits of the vegan foods.

Notes from AR 2011

Here are some of our notes from the 2011 AR conference: http://www.vegansoapbox.com/topics/ar2011/.

Of particular interest to the readers of this blog are these posts:
Winning Hearts And Minds
Effective Speaking
Advertising Our Message
Printing Our Message
Writing The Animal Rights Message

Print versus online media

A study was done a couple years ago that compared print and virtual advertisements. The researchers showed study participants two ads, one was on screen and the other was printed on paper. They did an MRI on the participants to see how their brains responded to the ads.

The study found that:

  • "Physical materials produced more brain responses connected with internal feelings, suggesting greater 'internalization'"
  • "Physical material involves more emotional processing"
  • physical presentation of information "may be generating more emotionally vivid
  • "Tangible materials leave a deeper footprint in the brain"
  • print materials have "a more personal effect, and therefore should aid motivation"
  • "While in no way denigrating virtual media, which clearly has specific benefits in terms of targeting and interactivity, the study does reveal that there is something special about the physical medium."

This study suggests that print marketing materials can be more effective than virtual ones.

Study link: http://www.millwardbrown.com/Libraries/MB_Case_Studies_Downloads/MillwardBrown_CaseStudy_Neuroscience.sflb.ashx

Animal advocacy is not exactly the same as marketing, but there are similarities. From this study, we can draw the conclusion that the act of physical leafleting is valuable work that likely has serious tangible benefits. Most likely, whenever someone receives a copy of Compassionate Choices from Vegan Outreach, and they look it over, they have an emotional memory with a significant personal effect.

Clearly, virtual media has enormous benefits due to ease of production, lower cost, less waste, interactivity, and more. However, this study shows an enormous benefit to print media as well.