Saving The Planet, One Meal At A Time
People love meat. Global meat consumption is on a steep upward trajectory, despite dire warnings about the risks to both human health and the environment. To counter this trend, we must find ways to convince people to reduce the amount of meat they eat. This study shows how a form of influence known as a “boost” persuaded college students to choose more plant-based meals. The technique succeeds by enhancing a person’s ability to make better decisions without restricting available choices.
For the study, a group of students at a U.S. residential college were randomized into experimental and control groups. Those in the experimental group received a 50-minute lecture about the health and environmental costs of eating meat. The control group received a lecture on a placebo topic. Questionnaires gathered demographic data, measured attitudes towards climate change, and asked about whether the students intended to or had actually changed their diet and why. Actual food purchase data was collected before and after the treatment using dining service cashier records that captured almost 50,000 individual transactions. This data was then correlated with the survey data.
Participants who heard the lecture on the effects of eating meat reduced their purchases of meat and increase their purchases of plant-based options. The effects were modest but sustained: meat purchases declined by 7.8%, and plant-based alternatives rose by 19.7%. Impacts were greatest during the semester of the trial, but the effects remained statistically significant throughout the school year. The study also found that more women than men changed their eating habits, which is perhaps in line with other studies showing men as more confirmed and hard to sway meat eaters. Women were more likely to reduce chicken and fish consumption, while men reduced their intake of beef.
The presentation to the experimental group was most effective for those students who reported being persuaded or motivated rather than just being informed. Those who cared most about climate change responded most strongly to the message. This cohort seemed to use this information as a springboard for action. And while most of the participants showed at least some change in their meat consumption, a small number made dramatic changes to their diet.
The strength of this study was that it allowed researchers to measure actual behavior change. When students opted for the plant-based dish instead of the beef or chicken, their choice was recorded in the objective purchase data. This contrasts with data collected using surveys that rely on subjects’ recall. Self-reports can be unreliable or even biased towards socially desirable responses. This, in turn, makes research results less reliable. In addition, the use of the college dining service eliminated the barriers of convenience and affordability that can discourage people from changing their eating habits. Plant-based meals were always offered, so students who wanted to change their diet didn’t have to figure out what to make or how to cook it. What’s more, the plant-based meals cost the same as the meat-based dishes.
This study provides evidence that education alone, in the right context, can reduce the demand for meat. Policies that encourage less meat consumption may seem complicated to implement. Advocates can use this study to showcase how a simple, well-designed, and carefully targeted intervention can be very effective. Communications repeated over time and delivered to an audience able to respond to the messages, could gradually shift demand away from meat and towards more humane, sustainable alternatives.