Exploring The ‘Do-Gooder’s Dilemma’
Despite the increasing number of vegans and vegetarians (hereafter combined as “veg*ns”), the majority of people still eat meat on an almost-daily basis. Meanwhile, popular culture paints veg*ns as constantly bringing up their veg*nism — when in reality, many veg*ns avoid the topic due to the social costs associated with publicly rejecting the norm of eating animals, such as hostile reactions from non-veg*ns who feel morally judged.
This article describes a study that tested whether veg*ns purposely self-silence in the presence of meat-eaters. The researchers point out that self-silencing can slow down the spread of veg*nism by making veg*n lifestyles more invisible and less influential. Past studies have shown that people are more likely to adopt meat-free diets when they believe their peers are increasingly doing so as well. Past studies have also shown that people are more willing to break conventions when others around them do so first. Taking these past studies into account, this study hypothesized that veg*ns would self-silence less in the presence of a supportive ally.
To test this hypothesis, 89 veg*n participants from a city in the Netherlands were recruited to take part in what they were told would be a small group discussion on plant-based meat alternatives. In reality, each veg*n participant was placed in a group with three “peers” who were secretly working with the study administrators. The group was moderated by a student of similar age and dress to the participants, in order to de-emphasize her position as an authority figure. In each session of the study, the moderator asked initial questions that prompted the three “peers” to respond in ways that indicated that none of them were veg*n. The moderator then casually asked the group if they were interested in signing a petition to add more veg*n options to supermarkets before starting the main discussion.
In all groups, the moderator stated that she had been asked to circulate the petition as a favor to a friend and that nobody should feel obligated to sign. In half of the groups, the moderator mentioned that she, personally, had signed the petition, whereas in the other half, she mentioned that she did not sign the petition. Each time, the three “peers” were handed the petition first and did not sign it, before passing the petition to the participant. There was no verbal discussion among group members about their decisions, but whether or not each person signed was clearly visible to the group.
In the end, 38 out of 45 participants (84.4%) signed the petition in groups where the moderator indicated that she herself had signed the petition, compared to 23 out of 44 participants (52.3%) in groups where the moderator indicated that she had not signed. Although one version of the petition emphasized concern for animals and climate change whereas the other version emphasized personal health, no statistically significant difference was found between the signature rates of each version.
Prior to the main study, a pilot study had been conducted without social pressure, i.e. a different set of 22 veg*n participants were asked in a private setting whether they would sign each of the two versions of the petition. In this pilot study, all 22 participants (100%) indicated they would sign the version of the petition that emphasized animals and climate change, and 17 out of the same 22 participants (77%) indicated they would sign the version that emphasized personal health. The combined signature rate of the pilot study (88.6%) was much closer to the signature rate of the main study groups where the moderator supported the petition with her own signature compared to the main study groups where the moderator did not do so. Thus, the researchers argue, it appears that the moderator’s mention of their own willingness to sign the petition may have in turn increased veg*ns’ willingness to be open about their private convictions in the group setting.
This study supports advocacy interventions that signal support of veg*nism publicly as a means of empowering more veg*ns to speak up. For example, veg*n clubs or community groups could host more public events and social gatherings to help veg and veg-friendly people see they’re not alone. Having at least one pro-veg voice may be especially important in primarily non-veg*n discussion spaces, such as corporate board rooms, research ethics committees, and (virtual or physical) newsrooms. Allyship is just one way to combat self-silencing among veg*ns, but further studies and intervention efforts are needed to identify additional strategies.