Going Vegan Or Vegetarian: Motivations & Influences
When it comes to vegan and vegetarian (veg*n) diets, people’s reasons for adopting them are among the most studied. For instance, studies have shown that health, environmental, and animal protection motivations are the most common in the U.S. (Faunalytics, 2014)—though they are not necessarily the same in other countries (e.g., India; Vietnam; the Netherlands). Research also suggests that people with ethical motivations tend to stay veg*n longer than those with health motivations (Faunalytics, 2014; Hoffman et al., 2013). In this study, we investigated the association of these different motivations with success over time. We expected to replicate the findings about the most common motivations and to find, similarly, that people with animal protection motivations would be more successful in their transition.
In addition to these motivations themselves, we can also think about the source of a motivation: whether it is self-driven or externally motivated. Past research focusing on health behaviors has shown that people are more likely to attain and maintain goals that they adopt for self-driven (intrinsic) reasons than goals that they adopt to please others (Williams et al., 1996). In this study, we predicted that the same would be true for going veg*n. For instance, even for two people with the same motivation, such as animal protection, we would expect one who sees that motivation as an important part of who they are to be more successful in their goal than one who mainly wants other people to approve of it.
General motivations such as health or environmental concern are only one way to think about the reasons for going veg*n. Underlying those explicit motivations is a psychological orientation known as speciesism: the belief that humans are worth more than members of other species. Speciesism is associated with veg*nism. For instance, Caviola et al. (2018) showed that vegetarians are less speciesist than non-vegetarians. However, we don’t have clear evidence about which comes first. Are people willing to go veg*n because they’re not very speciesist, or does going veg*n open them up to anti-speciesist thinking so they become less speciesist over time? This is one of the questions we investigated in this study.
Finally, apart from the general and the psychological, we also need to consider specific occurrences that influence people to go veg*n, from watching a documentary about animal suffering to following a doctor’s advice to reduce meat consumption. Researchers have studied a wide range of interventions designed to influence or increase people’s motivations to go veg*n for a particular reason (e.g., Mathur et al., 2021). This is especially true among animal advocates, for whom identifying and encouraging those reasons is a central part of dietary advocacy. In this report, we consider how these specific influences are related to success.
This study includes 222 members of the general public in the U.S. and Canada, all of whom had started transitioning to a vegan or vegetarian diet within the past two months.
The Level of Commitment section of the first report shows that more than 90% of the sample said they would probably or definitely continue their new diet change permanently. This sample should therefore be considered most representative of people who have already moved beyond a simple interest or desire to change into the stage where they are ready to actively work toward a veg*n goal. Stages of change are considered in more detail in the General Motivations section on the Conclusions tab.
- Self-driven motivations to go veg*n can be a powerful driver of success. Self-driven motivations come from within a person, like their personal values or moral identity, while external motivations include things like feeling pressured by others to succeed. People with both sources of motivation tend to be the most successful: For instance, 70% of people who scored high on both self-driven and external motivations at the beginning of the study met or exceeded their goal level of animal product consumption by the sixth month, compared to 59% of all participants. While this shows that both sources of motivation can drive success, previous research has found external motivations to be worse for long-term goal maintenance, so we suggest emphasizing self-driven motivations when possible, as detailed in the Recommendations section below.
- Participants became less speciesist after going veg*n, and those who were more successful in reaching their veg*n goals experienced the greatest reduction in speciesism. Over the first six months of a new veg*n diet, people’s speciesism decreased significantly. This was particularly true for those who were most successful at their diet. While people going veg*n tended to be fairly anti-speciesist compared to the general population anyway, averaging just 1.8 on a 1 to 5 scale, the average dropped to 1.5 over the six months of the study.
- Exposure to animal advocacy experiences tended to increase people’s consumption success on their new diets, regardless of whether animal welfare was their primary motivation or not. Namely, people who had seen unpleasant or graphic media of farmed animals (42%), watched a documentary (36%), and/or received information from an animal advocacy group (21%) all did better at reaching their goal level of animal product consumption six months later, even taking into account their general motivations and baseline levels of success. In contrast, people who had received information from a celebrity or influencer (23%) tended to be further from their goal level of consumption than those who hadn’t. Other specific influences may also be important although they did not rise to the top in this study.
- Learning particular facts could also increase consumption success, but the context matters. About half of people (51%) had learned about how farmed animals are mistreated, and we found that this experience may reduce success if it is the only influence, but that negative association tended to disappear when experienced along with other influences. More than two-thirds of people (68%) had learned about the health benefits of plant-based eating, which we found was positively associated with success, but that benefit tended to disappear if they had other influential experiences as well. In contrast, learning about farmed animal sentience (which 31% of people had) appeared to be helpful only in combination with other influences—taken alone, it did not have a clear effect on success.
- Overall, 42% of people’s veg*n journeys were motivated by health, 20% by animal protection, and 18% by environmental concern. However, these general motivations did not have any effect on how successful people were with their diets. Similar to previous research, health motivations were the most common reason for going veg*n. While Faunalytics’ 2014 study found that people with health as their only motivation tended to abandon their diets, the current study suggests that while those people may have been trying out veg*nism in a noncommittal way, people who have committed to it are fairly unlikely to abandon it regardless of their primary motivation.
- Encourage people to find and develop self-driven motivations. Not only are they associated with greater success at following a veg*n diet but also with commitment to stick with the diet, and research from other domains has shown that when a goal is self-driven, it is more likely to be reached and maintained. For instance, you may be able to help people identify which of their existing personal or moral values align with their goal, or why it could make them feel good to achieve it. Try to avoid ideas of looking good to others or to meet others’ expectations.
- Gently encourage people who are already motivated to go veg*n for health or environmental reasons to learn about the benefits of their actions for animals too. More impactful experiences like those described in Key Finding #3 above are particularly likely to help, and can be framed as additional motivation to help them stick to their goals. This is important because as we know from Faunalytics’ 2014 study, many people who try to go veg*n give it up. Helping people maintain the change needs to be part of the support advocates offer.
- When advocating for veganism, vegetarianism, or reduction, do not use health messaging alone, but do use it alongside animal protection and/or environmental messaging. Health is the most common primary motivation for going veg*n, so mentioning the health benefits may encourage more people to try veg*nism. But at the same time, health motivations alone are not good for veg*n diet maintenance, so use those messages in conjunction with information about the benefits for animals and the environment—and keep that up as they take the first steps on their veg*n journey. Suggesting that they seek out media about factory farming, documentaries, or other animal advocacy materials may be particularly effective.
Other Reports From This Study
The purpose of this study is to provide solid data for advocates about how to help new veg*ns maintain their change of lifestyle. This is the second report in a three-part series that will come out of this study.
- The first report focused on overall levels of success and described the variety of ways that people transition to veg*nism.
- The third report, coming in a few months, will focus on the crucial question of the effectiveness of various strategies for overcoming barriers to staying veg*n.
This project has produced a huge amount of data, all of which will be posted on the Open Science Framework once we have completed our own analyses and publications. In the meantime, if you have additional research questions that you would like us to consider, please contact [email protected].
The project authors are Jo Anderson (Faunalytics) and Marina Milyavskaya (Carleton University). However, this project was a massive undertaking and could not have happened without the support of multiple individuals and organizations.
We are very grateful to Faunalytics volunteers Renata Hlavová, Erin Galloway, Susan Macary, and Lindsay Frederick for their support and assistance with this work, as well as Carleton student Marta Kolbuszewska and the dozens of animal advocates who helped with recruitment. We are also very thankful to VegFund, Animal Charity Evaluators, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for funding this research. Finally, we thank all of our survey respondents for their time and effort.