It Takes More Than A Nudge To Reduce Meat Consumption
We all respond to social pressure. What others think, feel, and do affects what we think, feel, and do, even if we’re not aware of it. Psychologists call this following “descriptive social norms”. While this tendency to go along with the crowd is often viewed with disdain, suppose we could harness this behavior to change how people eat? This study looks at whether social norms could be used as behavioral “nudges” to encourage people to eat less meat.
Meat consumption continues to expand globally. Not only does this cost the lives of billions of animals each year, but animal agriculture has a significant climate impact. Meat production is responsible for an estimated one-sixth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and shifting to a more plant-based diet is critical to alter the trajectory of climate change. An average vegetarian diet produces about 35% fewer GHG’s than that of a meat-eater. And that’s before considering the reduction in water use, waste production and animal suffering.
As people become more aware of the impacts of a meat-centric diet, they may choose to eat differently. Indeed, prior research has shown veg*ns are more motivated to protect the environment than omnivores. But food choice is complicated. Personal history, culture, financial situation, social reference groups and moral philosophy are just a few of the factors that influence what we eat. And yet, while people don’t like being told what they can and can’t eat, they may be receptive to behavioral nudges because they don’t seem so authoritarian.
The concept of the nudge came out of the field of behavioral economics. It leaves people free to make decisions in their own interest but takes advantage of their existing biases, routines, and habits to achieve a desired outcome. An example is the use of default rules where, for example, a person must opt-out of organ donation if that is the default choice. Since descriptive social norms use social information to shortcut decisions, they can be considered a type of nudge. We see others doing something and think that we should do it, too.
So, will this concept translate to food choice? In this study, researchers conducted two experiments involving a total of 1,349 subjects, mostly German college students. They asked participants to choose one of five meals in each of 28 or 29 trials. The meals were those that students would find on offer in the college restaurants. Those assigned to the experimental group received periodic nudges via information touting the rising popularity of vegetarian and vegan meals, while those in the control group were not. Each participant was also asked about their environmental attitudes.
Results confirmed that those with more favorable attitudes towards environmental protection were much more likely to choose meatless meals. Unfortunately, the nudges failed to work. Respondents were no more likely to select the meatless meal when they viewed the nudge than when they didn’t. But one interesting finding did emerge: the more meat-free meals included within each five-meal set, the more likely a subject was to choose a meatless option.
While the authors posit several reasons for why the nudge failed, animal advocates might be most intrigued by the incidental finding. If the simple presence of more meatless food choices is enough to drive an increase in the consumption of plant-based meals, this is significant. It suggests that efforts to expand the number of veg*n offerings in venues such as school cafeterias, university dining services, restaurants, grocery store delis and so forth could be an effective way to grow plant-based eating. In any event, advocates should further explore the concept of behavioral nudges to learn how to incorporate this valuable technique into their toolkits.