Do Appeals To Animal Welfare Reduce Meat Consumption?
We all want to find the “magic bullet” to convince people to eat less meat. Many efforts so far have focused on changing behavioral cues for food selection (nudges) or on appeals to personal health or environmental sustainability. But are appeals to animal welfare more effective than we think? Indeed, psychological theory suggests that interventions targeting animal well-being might be no less potent, but instead act through different mechanisms.
People generally want to fit in with peer groups. Therefore, an approach explaining that eating less meat aligns with what others think is the right thing to do can successfully change behavior. Another option is to “humanize” individual animals by giving them a name and a face. Considering harm to a single animal can be more powerful than being deluged with reams of impersonal statistics on factory farming. Yet a third way to promote dietary change is to provide concrete suggestions for plant-based meals. This removes obstacles and makes it easier for people to implement new behaviors. Interventions that trigger moral or physical disgust for meat-eating or highlight the advantages of being part of a veg*n social movement have also been successful.
To learn more about the efficacy of animal welfare interventions, researchers in this study performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of 34 articles containing 100 studies. Sources included both academic journals and grey literature from 2010 forward. Experiments on 24,817 subjects tested the effects on meat consumption or purchase for a variety of approaches. Data came from 11 countries: Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, and the United States.
Examples of typical interventions included providing leaflets about factory farming conditions, mock newspaper articles, or showing images of meat dishes along with the animals they came from. In two-thirds of the studies, the interventions themselves lasted less than five minutes. Researchers also gauged impacts based on length of follow-up and other characteristics such as the percentage of male subjects. Risks of bias, such as publication bias or social desirability bias, were also examined. To be part of the data set, studies also needed to include a control group.
57% of the experiments assessed self-reported behavior while 41% reported what subjects claimed they would do in the future. Just 2% used an objective measure of how the subjects responded. Overall, interventions in 71% of the studies succeeded to a meaningful degree, at least in the short term. On average, there was a 22% change in the probability of subjects intending to or actually lowering their meat consumption or purchase. Interestingly, a “go vegan” recommendation had a stronger effect size than those that suggested going vegetarian or just eating less meat.
The authors also performed sensitivity analyses on the dataset to detect bias that would distort the reported results. Publication bias appeared negligible. Social desirability bias, where, for example, subjects would underreport their meat consumption, also did not appear to skew the outcomes to a significant degree.
The authors offer several recommendations for future research, which should be of particular interest to animal advocates. They urge future researchers to introduce more rigor to existing interventions. Rather than rely on self-reports, experimenters should use direct behavioral observations or other objectively measured data. Studies should also collect outcome data for longer periods of time after the intervention to assess the durability of the effects. Finally, results should be placed in terms of the numerical volumes of meat eaten or purchased rather than just the frequency. These improvements would give us more reliable information about what really works to influence meat consumption, and in turn, we can craft more successful campaigns. This will get us that much closer to ending animal suffering.