Looking Closer At U.S. Attitudes Toward Factory Farming
In 2017, a study by Sentience Institute found that 49% of people in the U.S. would support a ban on factory farms while 47% would support a ban on slaughterhouses. This strong support was surprising given that only around 1% of U.S. Americans identify as vegetarian. Nevertheless, when Sentience Institute replicated its study, it found similar levels of support.
Recognizing that these numbers seemed high, a separate team of researchers conducted a different study in 2018 that measured people’s support for a ban on slaughterhouses in the United States. They found that 47% of respondents were in favor of banning slaughterhouses — and even when they adjusted the results to account for people who didn’t understand the survey question, 34% of respondents still supported a ban.
Based on these results, some leaders in the animal advocacy movement have suggested that animal advocates should push more radical proposals and messages against animal agriculture. However, the author of this article questions whether the matter is settled (in other words, can we trust the results from these previous studies)? Furthermore, would radical actions against factory farming actually be accepted by the public in practice?
The author designed an experiment using a different approach to validate the results of previous research. Specifically, they sought to gauge U.S. public support for taking radical action against factory farming (specifically a ban on slaughterhouses) for animal welfare reasons.
The study was conducted via two online surveys. In both surveys, a policy was proposed that would outlaw slaughterhouses in the United States. A definition of slaughterhouses was given, along with animal welfare-centered arguments for and against the proposal. The respondents were then asked if they supported or opposed the policy. In the first study, a treatment group was asked to explain their reasoning, whereas the control group was not. In the second study, there was no control group.
Both samples were representative of U.S. adults and accounted for potential gender biases. The first survey included 700 individuals. Almost 8% reported support for a ban on slaughterhouses when asked to explain their reasoning (the treatment group), while 20% reported support when not asked to explain their reasoning (the control group). The second survey was much larger with 2,698 people, and nearly 16% supported the ban.
The results from this study suggest much less opposition to factory farming compared to past research. One potential explanation is that people have conflicting attitudes about this issue. For example, the 2017 Sentience Institute survey reported that almost half of individuals supported a ban on factory farming, yet almost everyone agreed that eating animals is a personal choice. Another potential explanation may be a knowledge gap, where some people don’t fully understand what it means to ban slaughterhouses or factory farms and therefore aren’t selecting the response they actually agree with.
In the author’s opinion, this leads to an important question: If people express two conflicting attitudes (e.g., saying they support slaughterhouse bans while also saying they have the right to eat animals without being told what to do), which one will they act upon? This question is important as animal advocacy organizations consider taking more radical actions against factory farms based on the results of previous surveys. However, if the public won’t actually support these initiatives, the movement may face backlash.
According to the author, the answer lies in doing more research on public support for slaughterhouse and factory farming bans. Even if research consistently shows high support for an initiative, the results may be misleading if they do not measure what the researchers think they are measuring. The research process benefits from looking at questions in a variety of ways with a fresh perspective.
Furthermore, the attitudes expressed in response to general questions are not always reliable indicators of support for specific policies or messages. Instead, the author feels it’s better to test responses to more detailed messages and policy proposals. Future studies on this topic might consider asking questions differently, measuring people’s responses to different types of proposals, and gauging their support for moderate vs. radical messages and actions. This can help animal advocates understand how attitudes change based on how arguments are framed.