Simplifying Advocacy Materials And Decision Fatigue
Faunalytics recently completed a study examining the readability of animal advocacy materials. We found that most advocacy material is written at a higher reading level than the average person is capable of reading. The take-home message from the study is that we need to learn to simplify our messages—and lowering the reading level may not be the only way. Marketers have long been using research-based methods to sell products; we should learn from their work because ultimately we are selling a message. Part of this message is asking people to make a decision to reorient the way they think about and use other animals; fortunately for advocates, marketers have already put a lot of time into research on decision-making.
Decision-making seems easy enough, but researchers find that it is actually a very complicated thing. I recently moved to Portland and was excited for the endless vegan choices I would have—all-vegan restaurants, restaurants and bars with full vegan menus, vegetarians and vegan grocery stores. No more asking the server what they were willing to put together for me, no more paying extra to have items removed from my salad, no more searching the Barnivore list to make sure the wine I want to order is gelatin free. But now I face a problem I had not anticipated—indecision. With the yellow pages and menu pages full of options, I find myself being indecisive and then just settling for the closest place to me or the first thing on the menu.
Apparently this is not just a personal quirk; researchers call this decision fatigue and find that it is a normal part of daily life. New York Times science writer, John Tierney, describes the issue and the research at length for those of you who are interested in the details. But here is the shorter version—decision fatigue is a type of the phenomenon labeled “ego fatigue.” Ego fatigue refers to the finding that people have a limited amount of self-control. In simple terms, this means if someone on a diet is offered too many treats in one day, he will eventually break down and go for the cookie or skip the gym. Similarly, people have a finite amount of mental energy for making good decisions.
Decision fatigue occurs when we make too many decisions too close together or have too many options to choose from. Eventually, people get mentally worn down from making choices, whether they realize it or not. The more options we have to choose from, the more difficult the decisions. Moreover, the greater number of decisions we make, the worse we get at making later decisions. The outcomes of decision fatigue include making bad decisions, making the easiest decision for the short term (i.e. what has the quickest pay-off, or what is first on the list), or choosing inertia—keeping things as they are and making no decision at all.
It is this propensity to choose inertia that animal advocates need to pay attention to. Our literature often tries to squeeze every idea and reason possible for not hurting animals for food, clothing, research, or entertainment into each pamphlet. The logic seems to be that if there are a lot of great reasons the audience will be able to find at least one that resonates with them. But what research on decision fatigue suggests, is that too many good reasons might be overwhelming and cause mental fatigue. Sheena Iyengar conducted a simple experiment—she set up a jam tasting table in a grocery store. When more flavors of jam were presented for tasting, more people came to sample them, but fewer ended up purchasing any jam. Too many choices seemed to cause a total shutdown in decision-making; people were excited to taste, but too overwhelmed to buy.
Interestingly, it does not seem to matter if the decision being examined is more important than which jam to buy. Researchers in Israel examined parole decisions and found that the likelihood of being granted parole was greatly enhanced if a judge had recently had a break or heard the case early in the day. Suffering decision fatigue after a series of rulings, the judges chose not to grant parole the majority of the time. This is essentially a non-decision because it changed nothing, the person stays in jail and the judge assumes no risk. If trained judges unknowingly suffer decision fatigue, we must assume that the average person certainly will as well, when being presented with animal advocacy materials for the first time.
I am not suggesting the average person is not smart enough to handle new ideas, but that too many new ideas at once may be overwhelming. What may be easy to forget for those of us who are familiar with animal rights reasoning and rhetoric is that to the average person this is all fairly new information, which they first have to decide to believe, and then must decide to react to and act on that belief. If even simple decisions, such as which flavor of jam to buy, can lead to decision fatigue when too many options are presented, the counter-cultural decision of not exploiting animals (something that is “normal” in our society) will much more likely lead to decision fatigue if there is too much “noise” behind the decision.
This research suggests that animal advocacy materials should be more focused and/or should present less material. Rather than telling people they should not eat meat for the animals, the environment, the factory farm workers, and their personal health, we might do better to present only one message in depth. True, that argument will not work for all people, but for those who are persuaded by that line of reasoning, it may have a better chance of getting people to the action phase where they make a choice to change their behavior. In the end, the single argument may be more effective than overwhelming people with too many reasons to make a choice.
Focusing the message on a single persuasive argument puts the onus on activists to be targeted in their approach and make sure they’re reaching an audience that will resonate with the message. A good example of this approach is PCRM’s Vegetarian Starter Guide. (NOTE: link will open a PDF file, 1.7 MB). The entire booklet is focused only on health issues rather than presenting a brief list of health benefits so that other topics such as animal cruelty or the environment can be covered as well. Instead, in the PCRM brochure each topic regarding health is discussed simply, but in detail. There is only one decision left to be made by the end of the pamphlet—do you want to be healthier or not?
Another promising way to present advocacy materials that may reduce decision fatigue is to present the issues more simply. This recent info graphic from Ethical Ocean is appealing for its ability to cover lots of issues surrounding veganism, but in a very simplistic manner—one or two facts about each issue are presented along with visuals that reduce the cognitive load by making the ideas easier to process and understand.
Of course, more research is needed to know if decision fatigue occurs in regard to advocacy materials, or what will be the best way to ameliorate the problem if it exists. But the existing literature suggests this is most likely a factor that affects our ability to successfully communicate our message and encourage people to make the decision to change their consumptive habits to avoid exploiting animals. We need more research in this area, yes, but in the meantime the most prudent thing we can do is to simplify our messages. We need to use simple language and simple arguments so that the choice to go veg or spay/neuter a companion animal or buy cruelty free products also seems like a simple choice to make.