Accepting Evil: Appeals That Do (and Don’t) Work (Part 4)
One thing that research on denial teaches animal advocates is that simply educating people may not be enough. As the previous three posts in this series highlighted, humans have an astounding capacity to deny the suffering around them. The challenge for advocates is how to educate and overcome the denial that keeps people from making choices to help end the suffering that animals face. Unfortunately, there is relatively little research to show advocates the best methods to overcome this denial and persuade people to take action.
All posts in this blog series:
In terms of tactics, we know what is unpopular, but not why. In our annual Animal Tracker survey of over 1,000 U.S. adults, we found that the most accepted social movement tactic is anti-cruelty investigations. Almost 80% of U.S. adults “strongly” or “somewhat” support anti-cruelty investigations. The fact that so many people support investigations is a positive sign, and may indicate that people want to see for themselves what is happening to animals behind closed doors. But as the rest of this blog series discussed, this doesn’t necessarily facilitate change.
Less popular are confrontational tactics or tactics that directly ask people to change their behavior. Just over 40% of respondents to HRC’s survey showed support for protests or product boycotts. However, a lack of support for a tactic does not equate to a lack of effectiveness. Perhaps these tactics are less popular because they are actually more successful and people are uncomfortable with change. Or, perhaps they are less successful because they are unpopular and people reject the message because they reject the tactic.
There is lots of debate but little research on the efficacy of tactics. Recent research by C. Daryl Cameron and B. Keith Payne does provide some insight though. Specifically, they found people are less likely to connect to the suffering of others if they are forewarned that they are being asked to donate money. This suggests that donation appeals shouldn’t open with the request for money.
Getting a Foot in the Door
Based on the study noted above, it might even seem that advocates would be more successful in getting people to acknowledge the validity of their arguments if they don’t ask for anything. But is there a point to this? If we educate people about farm cruelty but don’t ask people to stop eating animals, have we actually changed anything? If we teach people about the number of animals who die in shelters each day and the cruelty of puppy mills, but don’t ask them to take their animals to get spayed/ neutered or to adopt and not shop, are we saving animals’ lives?
In Change of Heart, Nick Cooney says, “yes.” He summarizes research that suggests that if we can get our “foot in the door” by planting a seed, then we can later ask for more from that person. For example, if we can get someone to acknowledge that animals in circuses are actually not having fun and are treated inhumanely, then maybe later we can ask them to boycott the circus and take their children to an animal-free circus or an animal sanctuary instead.
However, this tactic can only work if there is the ability for follow-up. Advocates are well aware that tactics must be adjusted for people you can only speak to once. We tend to be less intense with our friends and family, giving pieces of information over time and following up with resources to help them enact the change we are hoping for. However, what should we do if we need to make an impact with only one interaction with a person—from a protest sign, a pamphlet, or a conversation?
Again, the research is sparse, but provides some insight. First, it is clear that using guilt should be avoided. Cooney reviews a number of studies that find that as messages of guilt increase, a message’s ability to persuade the audience decreases. In an unpublished master’s thesis, Julie Lynn Lather examined “internal attribution,” a concept different from, but similar to guilt. Lather tested whether the presence of a human in images used in animal rights campaign literature would change the way that someone reacted to the message.
Lather’s theory was that a picture of animal abuse, such as a dead animal in a slaughterhouse, can easily be seen as something external to the audience. However, she hypothesized, placing a slaughterhouse worker in the image would lead to internal attribution. The viewer could associate with the human and understand that they are in part responsible. Yet she did not find this effect. Rather, she found “attributional ambivalence,” a concept that is essentially the same as denial. People saw the image, but did not react by feeling any more culpable for the animal abuse regardless of whether there was a person in the image.
Bottom line: Using guilt has – at best – no effect (as Lather found), but may have a negative impact, as found in all of the studies that Cooney highlights.
In a blog post earlier last year I discussed “shock advocacy,” highlighting a study that found that the use of graphic images were successful in delegitimizing animal abusers. However, another study by Robin L. Nabi, found that the use of graphic images was inversely related to support for a campaign message. However, in Nabi’s study, the message was to garner support for animal experimentation, and the graphic images were of animal experimentation. Given that animal advocates want to garner support against animal experimentation, perhaps the graphic images would work. We can’t be sure, so we are left with some support both for and against using graphic images—making it more risky.
Much research also suggests that it is important to tell the story of one person or one animal and that, as the number of victims increases, people tend to tune out. Cameron and Payne summarized a body of research that finds that, as the number of human victims increases, people are no more effected and may even be less affected emotionally and less inclined to give to charities. This body of research has lead many organizations to create donation appeals and literature that is centered on the telling of stories about individual animals.
Cameron and Payne, however, find that people can have compassion for groups. Study participants who indicated they were good at controlling their emotions did not respond with more sympathy when the number of victims increased, neither did respondents who were instructed to think “objectively.” However, those respondents who indicated being more emotional or who were instructed to fully experience their emotions did have increased compassion when the number of victims increased. This validates all that we have previously discussed in this blog series; people actively work to shut out emotion and compassion.
Again, we are left with mixed findings. There is proof that telling stories of individuals helps, possibly as a way to break through this tendency to turn natural emotions off when presented with large-scale problems.
Think Like Marketers
Unfortunately, there is no golden ticket as to what is going to work and there is little research as to the efficacy of tactics and messages in social justice movements. However, there is a great deal of research in the marketing field. The two are not exactly the same, as traditional marketing involves convincing people to buy one product over another, and these products are things that will benefit the consumer directly. Social movement campaigns, on the other hand, are trying to convince people to be altruistic and to care about something that will benefit someone else. However, we can still learn from the field of marketing and think of ways to act smarter. Advocates are, after all, trying to sell a worldview.
In a prior blog post, Faunalytics board member Caryn Ginsberg reminded us that we must always make our message relatable to the audience, provide resources for action, and come to our advocacy well-prepared and knowledgeable. She suggests the following key points:
- Answer what’s in it for me? Consider how you can help people perceive additional benefits and fewer barriers to animal-friendly behavior.
- Focus on more than the message. Make it easier for people to adopt animal-friendly behaviors, such as by maintaining a listing of animal-free circuses visiting the area. If alternatives are inferior, costly, or hard to find, explore ways to change the situation.
- Find out what you don’t know. Determine how you will listen to people one-on-one.
Ginsberg’s last point is an especially important one. We need to learn more to be smarter activists. Along these lines, I highly recommend reading Change of Heart, as Cooney has consolidated much marketing and psychology research we can apply to advocacy. Of course, HRC provides relevant opinion and behavior research and a wide range of related resources on our library,
Finally, we need to remember that we cannot convince everyone and some people will be easier to convince than others. In a world where animal cruelty is so rampant and normalized, it is best to look for the easy sell, or the low-hanging fruit. So, before beginning a campaign it is useful to understand which segments of the population are most likely to come on board. HRC publishes the results of our Animal Tracker survey each year and, via our graphing tool, users can easily break down results by demographic characteristics like gender or age. By focusing campaigns on the most receptive audience possible, those least likely to deny the suffering you are trying to alleviate, more progress can be made in less time.
In the end, whatever tactics and messages we choose, animal advocates must always keep our target audience in mind and be willing to listen to that audience to continually improve our methods of persuasion.