How Do Vegans Become Vegans?
We all know that behavior change is difficult. Whether it’s losing weight, giving up cigarettes, getting fit, or just reducing the time we spend scrolling on our phones, it’s not like turning on a light switch. One day, our eating habits are terrible. The next, we’re gobbling down kale. One day we’re living on the couch. The next, we’re regulars at the gym and training for a 10K. It just doesn’t work that way.
So how do we change our behavior for the long term? What conditions must be in place for us to succeed? And for animal advocates, how do we use these answers to encourage people to eat less meat?
This study applies the Transtheoretical Model (TM) of behavior change to the process of becoming vegan. The model, also known as the Stages of Change Model, was developed during the 1980s to explain intentional behavior changes involved in moving from unhealthy to healthy behavior. In addition to the stages themselves, there are several constructs or building blocks that support the model. One is Decisional Balance, which weighs the pros and cons of making a change. In thinking about veganism, a person may consider the reduced amount of dietary fat, increased fiber, and lack of cholesterol. The social and environmental impacts of not eating meat may also come into play. Unfamiliar foods and the difficulties of dietary change may weigh down the con side of the scale.
A second construct is Self-Efficacy, the confidence a person has that they can maintain their new behavior, particularly in situations that might prompt relapse. For new vegans, social situations may be especially fraught. How will they handle the first Thanksgiving with family? What about going out to eat with friends, or the game-day party? As a new vegan progresses through the transition, their self-efficacy and ability to avoid temptation typically increase.
The final set of constructs are the 10 Processes of Change. The first is Consciousness-Raising or learning new information to help the transition. The second is Dramatic Relief or experiencing the negative feelings that go along with unhealthy behaviors. In Self-Reevaluation, a person assesses their image with and without an unhealthy habit. In Environmental Reevaluation, the person looks outward to consider how their unhealthy behavior affects others. With a belief that change is possible comes Self-Liberation. Helping Relationships support the person in their transition. Counter-Conditioning involves substituting healthy new behaviors for old behaviors. Reinforcement and Management rewards successful change. Finally, Stimulus Control engineers the environment to support the new behavior.
The model itself defines six stages that a person goes through to alter a behavior pattern. The stages, and how they might work in the transition to veganism, are as follows. In this application, the authors focus mainly on the health benefits of becoming vegan.
- Precontemplation – the individual is either unaware of a problem or is aware but has no intentions to change. In the context of veganism, the person is not familiar with this eating pattern and doesn’t know it might be a way to improve their health.
- Contemplation – a person intends to change behavior within the next six months. The costs of change seem daunting, but the benefits balance the scale. As such, people can easily get stuck in this stage for long periods. A potential vegan in this stage is now aware of how veganism might confer health benefits. They also face the very real challenges of changing an entrenched dietary lifestyle.
- Preparation – an individual is ready to act. Indeed, they may have already taken some steps to get ready for the transition. The aspiring vegan may be reading up on what to eat, how to prepare new dishes, and examining the social implications of the change.
- Action – Overt behavioral changes have been observed over the last six months and use of the Processes of Change are evident. The new vegan is no longer eating meat, dairy, or eggs. Measurements of health markers such as weight, cholesterol, or blood pressure should start to improve.
- Maintenance – usually defined as six months after the criteria for the new behavior are reached, and until the risk of reverting to the old behavior is gone. The person no longer consumes animal foods and finds effective ways to resist temptation.
- Termination – an individual no longer succumbs to temptation. This stage is not always included in descriptions of the TM model. For a new vegan, this stage is where veganism has become the norm, and navigating a meat-eating world is automatic.
For animal advocates, this article identifies the target population of potential vegans who will be most receptive to the veg*n ideas. Messaging which targets those in the Preparation, Action, and Maintenance stages will reach those who are most likely to be receptive and also likely to welcome assistance with this difficult change.