Reducing Meat Consumption: Messaging That Works
Most people who live in high-income countries already eat more meat than they need. More ominously, meat consumption in lower-income countries is climbing. The overconsumption of red and processed meat is associated with serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and certain forms of cancer, and what’s more meat production drives about 15% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. While the public is aware of the health risks associated with eating meat, the impacts of meat production on climate change are less well known.
Information campaigns can be effective in changing peoples’ intentions. But changes in attitudes don’t always translate to changes in actions. To overcome this issue, researchers in this study tested the effectiveness of two types of messaging to see if they could change meat-eating behavior. Messages were either health-related, or stressed the negative environmental effects of eating meat. They also examined whether such messaging created behavioral spillover, where eating less meat led to more pro-environmental behaviors or an increased pro-environmental identity.
A total of 320 students at a U.K. university took part in a two-week behavioral intervention, and all subjects indicated they ate meat at least three times a week at the start of the study. Students were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: one group received information about the health impacts of eating red and processed meat; another heard about the environmental effects of consuming meat; a third group received both types of information — members of these three groups were asked to reduce their red and processed meat consumption to twice a week for the two-week intervention period; and the control group received no information on these topics, and were directed not to change their diet.
Subjects responded to three online surveys, one at the beginning, one after two weeks, and one after four weeks. The first gathered demographic and meat consumption data. It also contained questions about pro-environmental identity. The second and third surveys again asked about meat consumption and environmental attitudes and behaviors. A Facebook chatbot delivered the daily informational messaging. Researchers also asked students to keep a daily food diary for two weeks.
Participants that received one or both types of information reduced the amount of meat eaten by a significant amount, and the size of the effects was similar regardless of whether a subject received health, environmental, or both types of information, though the combination may have been slightly more impactful. A significant reduction in meat-eating even remained one month later. The control group displayed no similar effect. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of behavioral spillover and no effect on pro-environmental identity. Subjects who reduced their meat consumption reported that they were more willing to eat less meat and dairy but showed no other changes in attitudes or behaviors.
Animal advocates can gain valuable insights from this study. Health and environmental messaging are both effective at changing peoples’ behavior. And while we want to change hearts and minds, we most want to change everyday actions. Using social media platforms to deliver short, simple communications about the benefits of eating less meat, coupled with a specific behavioral ask, may be one way to do just that.