Meeting Meat Eaters Halfway
Authors of a study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology set out to determine whether an appeal to eliminate meat from one’s diet was more impactful than an appeal to reduce one’s meat consumption. Given findings from earlier research on identity, they suspected that asking participants to eliminate meat — a categorical change from meat-eater to non-meat-eater — would be more challenging to participants’ identities and therefore more resisted than a request to simply decrease their meat consumption, framing meat-eating as a continuum. They were also interested in whether appeals in a scalable format (in this case an op-ed) would be effective in eliciting lasting change in participants’ intentions, beliefs, and meat consumption habits. Lastly, they wanted to find out whether highlighting dynamic norms, in this case the trend of reducing meat consumption, would compel participants to embrace such changes themselves.
Experiment 1 Design
The authors designed an experiment with four waves:
- Assess participants’ initial self-reported meat consumption habits and attitudes and intentions regarding eating meat.
- (One week after assessment) Assign participants to one of three treatments:
- Read an op-ed encouraging reducing meat consumption
- Read an op-ed encouraging eliminating meat consumption
- Read a control op-ed about the benefits of walking
- (One month after treatment) Reassess participants’ meat consumption habits and attitudes and intentions regarding eating meat.
- (five months after treatment) Reassess participants’ meat consumption habits and attitudes and intentions regarding eating meat.
The participants were U.S. residents recruited from Mturk (a survey crowdsourcing platform). Participants were dropped if they reported unrealistically high initial meat consumption, if they failed to spend at least ten seconds reading the op-ed, or if they failed to complete the experiment. This left 1,650 participants for the final analysis.
To gauge participants’ attitudes about eating meat, they were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with five statements about whether meat reduction is increasing in popularity and how consuming animal products affects farmed animals, consumer health, and the environment. Participants were also asked whether they intended to change their diets. The same attitude and intention questions were revisited in waves 3 and 4 to determine whether the treatment had a lasting impact.
For the treatment, participants were randomly assigned to read the reduce meat op-ed, the eliminate meat op-ed, or the walking (control) op-ed. The op-eds were all roughly one single-spaced page long.
Experiment 1 Results
Intentions: Both the reduce and the eliminate treatment groups initially showed increased intentions to cut back their meat consumption, but after five months only the group who had been asked to reduce their meat consumption maintained this intention.
Attitudes: Both treatment groups showed a change in their attitudes and beliefs about the impacts of eating meat that lasted through the last assessment, five months after reading the op-eds.
Consumption: the reduce group reported a lasting reduction of 7-9% in their meat consumption, while the eliminate group showed a non-significant reduction of 2-4%.
Experiment 2 Design
A 7-9% reduction in meat consumption lasting at least five months just from reading a one-page op-ed is a pretty remarkable result. If people’s consumption choices and beliefs can be significantly influenced by a simple, scalable treatment, this is a very big deal. But would the results hold for a more representative sample?
The Mturk sample was younger, more liberal, more educated, and less wealthy than the national average. For round two, the investigators used a larger, nationally representative sample. They also made a few small improvements to the experiment design, shortening the op-eds, asking explicitly whether the participants completed the reading, replacing the control op-ed with one on an even less related topic, adding a fourth treatment to assess the effect of factory farm footage, consolidating the waves, and shortening the intervals between waves.
Experiment 2 Results
Intentions: As in Experiment 1, both reduce and eliminate groups expressed increased intentions to reduce their meat consumption after reading the op-ed. The farm footage group did as well. However, unlike the results from Experiment 1, none of the groups maintained this intention in the long run (two months).
Attitudes: The op-ed treatments initially influenced attitudes across the board, but the effect only lasted for the question about low- or no-meat diets’ increasing popularity (dynamic norms). The farm footage treatment increased participant’s beliefs that buying animal products increases animal suffering, but it also made them less likely to believe that meat reduction is growing in popularity.
Consumption: None of the Experiment 2 treatments influenced meat consumption, even in the short run. However, after teasing apart some demographic categories it was found that all three treatments had significant impacts on liberal participants, and the op-eds had a significant impact on participants with a 2-year degree or more.
The results of Experiment 2 were quite different from those of Experiment 1. The investigators suspected this was due to the demographic differences between the two experimental populations. They confirmed this by selecting a subset of Experiment 2 participants to mimic the demographics of the Experiment 1 pool, and this yielded results consistent with Experiment 1.
To answer the authors’ original questions, then, these particular op-eds do have lasting impacts on intentions, attitudes, and consumption, but only for certain demographics. Op-eds can change peoples’ perceptions about dynamic norms which might make them more likely to follow the meat-reduction trend, while factory farm footage has the opposite effect. Meanwhile, pleas to reduce meat consumption are more effective at lowering demand for meat than pleas to eliminate meat consumption.
Takeaways for advocates
- Op-ed outreach efforts will likely have the greatest impact when targeted at a young, liberal, educated, and low-income audience.
- Pleas to reduce meat consumption may be more effective than pleas to eliminate meat consumption.
- If you want to highlight the growing popularity of low- and no-meat diets, avoid showing factory farm footage.
- The authors suggest that direct pleas to change behavior may come across as accusatory and meet with resistance. Advocates and researchers may do well to consider stealthier methods of persuasion.
- While this study used a combination of motivations in its appeals, future work analyzing the individual impact of various motivations (health, animal welfare, environment) would be useful. It may be that different demographics could be influenced by op-eds if they hit on the right motivations.