Do Pro-Animal Attitudes Predict Animal-Friendly Behavior?
Nearly all of our waking time is spent reacting to the world around us. Perhaps we are asked our thoughts on the documentary we just saw, or to choose an item to order from a restaurant menu. We may feel dissatisfied in our jobs, excited about a new relationship, or outraged over a policy change. To successfully navigate the world, we must carefully consider our reactions—how we think and feel about any given topic—because they often guide our actions.
Social psychology refers to our reactions as “attitudes.” Colloquially, we use the term attitude to describe a positive or negative state of being (e.g., referring to someone defiant or otherwise hostile as having a “bad attitude”). In the field of psychology, attitudes are not categorically good or bad in and of themselves; rather, they represent the extent to which we believe something else to be good or bad. For example, if you hold the belief that domesticated animals such as dogs and cats make great companions for humans, that belief represents a positive attitude toward living with companion animals. If you feel that typical practices for commercial meat and dairy production are inhumane, that sentiment translates into a negative attitude toward factory farming.
We have attitudes about anything we can hold in our minds, ranging from the tangible (such as a cup of coffee) to the abstract (such as the concept of animal welfare). Our attitudes represent how we personally feel about people, places, things, and ideas. We store these evaluations in our memories and retrieve them for use in relevant contexts.
The Attitude-Behavior Connection
One of the major functions of attitudes is to guide behavior. For example, having a positive attitude about animal rights is useful when deciding whether to donate money to a cause promoting animal welfare. However, simply knowing a person’s attitude is not enough to reliably predict their behavior (for a notable example, consider the widespread failure of likely voter polls in predicting the outcome of the US 2016 presidential election).
Often, we see discrepancies between attitudes and behavior when seeking to influence a very specific behavior by appealing to an attitude about a broad topic. For example, a person who maintains a positive attitude toward the broad topic of animal welfare may not choose a veg*n diet or donate money to an animal welfare charity. To effectively influence one’s dietary or philanthropic behavior, we would have to influence their specific attitudes about eating meat or donating to a charity promoting veg*nism (Frymier & Nadler, 2017).
Of course, our attitudes alone don’t influence how we act. The Reasoned Action Model (Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010) suggests that for a behavior to occur, there must first be an intention to perform the behavior. A behavioral intention arises, in part, from our specific attitude toward the behavior, but also from whether we believe that the behavior is normative and how much control we have over our ability to carry out the behavior.
Norms refer to the typical behavior of a specific group of people, such as relatives, friends, or coworkers. For instance, if you work in an environment where everyone recycles, it is likely that your coworkers expect you to recycle as well. If we are motivated to follow a social norm (and we often are as social creatures), that can increase our intentions to behave accordingly. However, even if our behavior-specific attitude and perceived norm align with that behavior, we may still fail to act if we perceive obstacles to performing the behavior. For example, if the pro-recycling office does not provide recycling bins close to our workspace, we may be less inclined to recycle because, despite that doing so aligns with our pro-recycling attitude and norm, it takes too much effort.
What if we simply don’t feel very strongly about the topic at hand, though? It is easy to think of instances where we agree with other people on a topic but don’t feel as strongly about it as they do, or vice versa. Strong attitudes are more predictive of behavior because we use them to a much greater extent when forming judgments and making decisions. In addition, they are less likely to change. As such, an individual with a strong attitude about a certain topic is more resistant to persuasive arguments aimed at changing that attitude.
Although strong attitudes are difficult to change, it does happen. This is because the features that make attitudes strong are generally independent and not all operating at once. For example, I recall as a teenager having an extremely positive attitude toward chocolate milkshakes. This attitude was based on an enjoyable, direct experience but minimal knowledge about the nutritional qualities of milkshakes. Upon learning how shockingly unhealthy milkshakes typically are, I decided to find equally satisfying alternatives with less saturated fat.
Another feature of strong attitudes is elaboration, or the depth of thought involved in forming and/or revising the attitude (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) says that when you try to persuade people of something, those thinking shallowly about the message are on the peripheral route to persuasion, whereas those thinking deeply are on the central route to persuasion. Those on the central route have both motivation (e.g., personal relevance or accountability) and ability (e.g., no time constraints or distractions) to process the message. Those on the peripheral route lack motivation and ability and, therefore, tend to have relatively weak attitudes.
To better unpack the ELM, let’s imagine a persuasive appeal for synthetic-trimmed coats that cites the cruelty of the fur industry. A person who is concerned about animal welfare would be motivated to process the message. If they also have plenty of time and no distractions, they might carefully scrutinize the message to determine whether the source is credible, whether the arguments are valid and of a high quality, and how the arguments relate to their initial, fur-loving attitude.
When a person lacks motivation or ability, they generally cannot or will not scrutinize the persuasive appeal. This is not to say they necessarily ignore the appeal altogether; rather, they may be persuaded via the peripheral route through shortcuts called “cues” that allow for a low-processing judgment. For example, a credible or likable source, such as a friend or a celebrity, may be sufficient to persuade someone processing peripherally. Likewise, someone on the peripheral route is less likely to evaluate the quality of a message’s arguments and instead consider a simpler cue, such as the number of arguments.
Overall, attitudes changed via the central route tend to be strong and long-lasting, and they impact thoughts, judgments, and behavior. Attitudes changed via the peripheral route tend to be weaker, more likely to change over time, and have less influence on thoughts, judgments, and behavior.
Finally, it is important to note that we generally dislike being wrong and, therefore, often protect our attitudes once we form them: we seek out information that reinforces our existing beliefs, interpret ambiguous information in an attitude-consistent manner, and avoid or disregard information that contradicts our attitude. This is a phenomenon known as confirmation bias (Nickerson, 1998). On one hand, our technologically-driven world has allowed for easy access to more information than we could possibly even begin to digest. On the other hand, it also allows us to surround ourselves with preferred sources of information. Therefore, when considering how to persuade others to adopt more animal-friendly attitudes and behaviors, it is not enough to think of ways to increase their motivation. We must also consider how to make persuasive messages most visible, as people who never encounter these messages are people who cannot be persuaded.