Collaborating Successfully: Psychological Scientists And Animal Advocates
You’ve probably wondered whether your advocacy helps animals. You may have asked your friends and colleagues about your advocacy’s impact, talked to other advocates with lived experience, or compared it to your own previous experiences. None of these methods are wrong — they’re great resources in your toolbox to better understand your impact. But there’s one other tool that has emerged over the last few decades: the application of empirical evidence to guide decision-making. This is referred to as the scientific study of animal advocacy, or animal advocacy science for short.
Animal advocacy science combines methodologies from the social sciences and related fields to answer questions about the animal protection movement. For instance, it can take the form of surveys or interviews, where people are asked about their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors on topics related to animals. This discipline also uses experiments to understand what causes changes in people’s behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes. Finally, it can also use existing data to summarize a topic (e.g., meta-analysis) or to answer a question (e.g., desk research) related to animal advocacy.
At Faunalytics, we regularly conduct animal advocacy science. In addition to organizations like ours, animal advocacy science is also conducted in universities across the globe. Summaries of this kind of research can be found in our library.
For animal advocacy science to be most impactful (e.g., save animal lives and/or reduce suffering), it must be used by advocates to guide their decisions. Collaborating between advocates and scientists is crucial to ensure that relevant research questions are being investigated. This blog in itself is the product of such collaboration: It arises from a paper that came to life when Chris Hopwood, an academic interested in animal advocacy and co-founder of the PHAIR Society, reached out to researchers at Faunalytics and Mercy For Animals, as well as Chris Bryant, a leader of the private research firm Bryant Research. Dr. Hopwood initiated the project after collaborating with advocacy organizations and noticing many opportunities and challenges that were part of the process.
For the rest of this blog, we will discuss how animal advocates can improve the scientific study of advocacy by collaborating with psychological scientists, challenges that may arise (and how to overcome them), and how advocates can put social science research to use effectively.
Understanding Movement Needs
Animal advocates can participate actively in improving the social science research process by helping researchers understand the movement’s most pressing issues. Advocates have a wealth of knowledge, and access to resources that otherwise would be (and often are) unknown to researchers. They also have years of experience doing advocacy, so they have good ideas (and anecdotal data) about what is practical, what works best, and what questions remain unanswered.
What’s more, advocacy organizations often have particular types of data and resources that could be used in research, such as the raw numbers of sign-ups for a meat-free challenge, or videos or graphics that researchers can use in their study materials.
By providing scientists with guidance on the research questions that need to be answered, advocates have much to gain. Most notably, relevant research can help advocates move beyond anecdotal evidence or intuition in understanding which tactics and strategies work in different circumstances. Evidence-based advocacy enables more informed and effective choices than just relying on “gut” feelings, ultimately leading to more animal lives saved and less animal suffering.
Challenges In Collaboration: Bias, Goals, Values, And Communication
While it’s normal for challenges to arise in any collaboration, there are many ways to overcome them in a science-advocacy context. Some challenges can include perceived and actual biases, goal tension, value tension, and miscommunication.
In general, animal advocacy science can be perceived as biased by the public because it seeks to understand and promote behaviors that are uncommon in society (e.g., abstaining from animal product consumption), which could trigger cognitive dissonance and other phenomena. Additionally, advocacy-science collaborations can be perceived as biased within the animal protection movement. For example, some vegan advocates may perceive bias in research that suggests meat-reduction messages are more impactful than vegan messages if that research is funded by a reducetarian organization.
While it’s always important to consider the source of a study to understand any potential conflict of interest, a study funded by an advocacy organization isn’t necessarily biased, especially if the study is pre-registered (this is when researchers outline what they plan to do and how, including how to analyze their data, before collecting any data). Pre-registration minimizes any personal biases from the researcher or funder. We talk more about this below.
While it’s important to critique research, misperceptions of bias can create skepticism and mistrust in animal advocacy science, with negative consequences. Public mistrust can reduce scientific research funding and limit scientific progress, hinder effective policy interventions, or make it less likely that the public will make scientifically-informed decisions. Reviewing a study’s methods, as outlined below, can help you understand whether a study and its results are truly biased or not.
Secondly, advocacy-science collaboration can run into conflicts when the researcher and advocate have different goals. While both parties may ultimately share the end goal of improving the lives of non-human animals, they may disagree on the short-term steps to achieve that. While some advocates hope to achieve the end goal using whatever means, there could be situations where scientific evidence contradicts trusted practices or beliefs in advocacy.
For instance, research that has compared different methods of advocacy suggests that some well-known tactics may be less effective than others in driving behavior change — which is why, for example, Faunalytics recommended that advocates use social media posts and news articles over protests when it comes to veg*n outreach. To reduce such tension, advocates and scientists should agree early on about which results will be shared with the public and which will be made private, in cases where the results are unforeseen (e.g., a compromise could be granting full report access only upon request).
Differences in goals can also arise between advocates, researchers, and funders. Most advocacy organizations have budgets derived from philanthropists, whose interests may influence those organizations’ missions (e.g., funding by effective altruism grants may skew research towards farmed animals). Similarly, most scientists work for public institutions or private educational institutions, which can influence what they research. To reduce any negative impacts from conflicting goals, everyone should be clear about their goals, approaches, skills, and contributions from the outset, and have open conversations about these issues throughout a collaboration.
Thirdly, there may be conflicting values between scientists and advocates, such as the time it takes to enact change. Whereas advocates may want to affect change as soon as possible, research is a slow process: scientific methods must be carefully thought through, data collection can take a long time, and rarely does any single study significantly advance knowledge or affect change overnight. Moreover, as we discuss below, the results of a single study should be taken with a grain of salt as it’s possible the results aren’t replicable. Relatedly, while advocates would often like scientists to communicate how one study could improve their advocacy, from a scientific perspective this is often not possible due to the studies’ limitations. For this reason, scientists are often reluctant to draw “final” conclusions from a single study.
Finally, there may also be miscommunications between advocates and researchers. For example, advocates may not have the background and training to frame helpful questions into a language that can be used to design a study. When discussing pressing questions or collaborations with researchers, both parties should listen closely and check in to better understand each other’s perspective.
Using Research In Advocacy
In an ideal world, advocates would rely on strong scientific evidence, which ensures that efforts are targeted towards the most pressing issues, maximizing impact and achieving meaningful progress for animals.
How can advocates determine that the study they’re looking at is strong scientific evidence? Here are some key techniques:
- Gather data from multiple studies. The results of a single study could simply be wrong. Just as it’s possible to flip a coin and get heads 8/10 times, it’s also possible to discover a finding in one study that’s the product of chance. Instead, the accumulation of research across many different studies reveals a more reliable understanding of an underlying phenomenon. Familiarize yourself with the hierarchy of scientific evidence, which ranks systematic reviews and meta-analyses as the gold-standard because they synthesize data across many studies. In cases where there isn’t a meta-analysis or systematic review available, advocates should read as many studies related to a given topic as possible.
- Build on your scientific training to critique scientific studies. By learning about the scientific process (e.g., through Faunalytics’ resources or classes on Coursera), you can learn to assess a study’s design, methodology, potential biases, and limitations. It’s now well-established that many effects reported in the literature are likely not real in the population (called “false positives”). Scientific journals are less likely to publish negative or null results, so researchers are incentivized to misapply statistical techniques to “find” positive effects. . Even combining data from multiple studies in meta-analyses doesn’t guarantee reliable conclusions. Therefore, to minimize researcher biases, it’s best to check if studies and meta-analyses have been pre-registered and if the data is publicly available. You can usually find this out by looking for pre-registration and open-access data statements within the original paper, typically in the method section.
- Consider the study’s effect size and statistical significance. When interpreting scientific results, people usually look to see whether that finding is likely to have occurred by chance (statistical significance, not to be confused with “significance” in the common usage of the term). It’s also important to carefully consider the effect size, which is the strength of a relationship between two variables, or the difference between two groups. Very large effect sizes are uncommon in psychological research, and we should generally be suspicious when they are found. However, small effect sizes can be impactful if they are combined across many people. For instance, a messaging campaign that is only persuasive to 1/100 participants could change the behavior of 1,000 people if it were delivered to 100,000 individuals. At the same time, it’s important to consider the costs and benefits of implementing strategies based on small effect sizes.
Once you’ve reviewed data and research for a particular topic and you’re ready to share what you’ve learned with the world, we recommend that you think strategically about how to do so. Advocacy groups can amplify certain evidence-based messages or data in a way that frames the narrative for advocates, the general public, and the media. For example, the Dublin Declaration makes claims that, while technically true, are misleading, including that certain cow grazing systems can sequester carbon and that animal products are necessary for nutrition in developing countries. In contrast, an advocacy group might want to point out that regeneratively farmed beef and animal products in developing countries make up a small proportion of the overall meat supply.
Also, keep in mind that sometimes the most relevant results from an advocacy perspective may not be a key finding reported in paper abstracts. For instance, the abstract of this study of diet change by Bryant Research only covers the key hypotheses, but the report has useful descriptive information for advocates, like how many people had been exposed to various forms of advocacy.
By combining the passion and vision of advocates with the rigor and evidence-based approach of scientists, we have the potential to address complex questions in the animal protection movement. Collaborations between advocates and scientists can foster a future where science informs advocacy, and advocacy drives science, ultimately reducing and preventing animal suffering.
Relying on strong scientific evidence provides us with the credibility and rigor necessary to persuade policymakers, the public, and even fellow advocates. It helps us make informed, data-driven arguments that are less susceptible to dismissal or skepticism than if we were just to rely on intuition.
To minimize any potential conflicts that may arise in advocacy-science collaborations, advocates can:
- Learn more about the scientific process. You can build on your scientific training through reading Faunalytics’ research advice or taking free classes. For those short on time, Faunalytics’ Research Library houses thousands of study summaries to help advocates learn the biggest take-aways from data and research. Faunalytics also has blogs written by experts that summarize a particular topic.
- Agree at the start of a collaboration. Discuss your goals, approaches, skills, and contributions, and about which results you’ll be comfortable sharing with the public. Remember to also regularly check-in with your scientist collaborators.
- Hire a communication expert. Organizations may find such a liaison useful to translate issues between team members with different backgrounds, and to describe the results of studies or frame their message.
If you’re interested in starting a collaboration with a research organization or an academic, we recommend reaching out to our Research Scientist, Andrea Polanco. We also encourage you to submit a research question that you’d like to see studied by directly contacting Faunalytics or the research team at Mercy For Animals.
While both our paper and this blog focus on collaborations between social science and advocacy, there are many other areas of the sciences and humanities that are valuable and offer collaboration opportunities — such as sociology, philosophy, and law. You can learn more about advocacy-science collaborations in our paper.
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This blog was co-authored by Andrea Polanco of Faunalytics, Christopher J. Hopwood of the University of Zurich, Christopher Bryant of Bryant Research and the University of Bath, and Courtney Dillard and Andie M. Thompkins of Mercy For Animals.