The Link Between Knowledge And Ethical Behaviors
When we think about what makes people take ethical actions related to animals (such as going veg*n or engaging in animal advocacy), it’s easy to consider someone’s values, attitudes, and demographic characteristics. But according to the authors of this study, knowledge about different animal issues is less often considered, especially in previous research.
Nevertheless, having knowledge about an issue — that is, true beliefs that are justified by evidence — can lead to more enlightened behaviors. For example, people may sincerely agree that animal abuse is morally unacceptable but continue to eat eggs without concern if they don’t have evidence-based knowledge on the harms of the egg industry. Indeed, if they believe that all egg-laying hens live an idyllic life in a large field without experiencing suffering, why would they stop eating eggs?
To properly investigate the relationship between knowledge and behaviors, the authors of this article conducted four studies to create and test a “knowledge about factory farming” questionnaire. While their main goal was to develop a reliable questionnaire for future researchers to use, they also wanted to understand whether factory farm knowledge predicted certain pro-animal behaviors among people in the United States.
In the first and second studies, the authors tested 38 true-or-false statements about factory farming by surveying 270 participants in each study. Their goal was to refine their questionnaire, making it as relevant and reliable as possible. They also ensured that each statement had varying levels of difficulty with little redundancy. For example, the statement “The average American consumes more than his or her weight in meat annually” was eliminated because the authors decided the answer was too easy to find (it’s true). The final questionnaire included 10 true-or-false statements.
In their third and fourth studies, the authors tested this final questionnaire on 241 and 278 participants respectively. In addition, they asked respondents to report their animal product consumption and their willingness to support different political actions to protect farmed animals. Finally, they also measured participants’ objective knowledge about animals used for food and their attitudes toward eating animals (using the 4Ns), as previous research has found that these two factors are linked to pro-animal behaviors.
The results showed that the more knowledge participants had about factory farming, the more likely they were to take pro-animal political actions (such as signing a petition to support farmed animal welfare). However, on its own, factory farming knowledge was not a significant predictor of animal product consumption — instead, knowledge about animals used for food and adherence to the 4Ns were stronger predictors. Specifically, people with more knowledge about animals used for food and those with weaker adherence to the 4Ns tended to consume fewer animal products.
The authors concluded that, like beliefs or values, knowledge is related to ethical behaviors. Thus, educating people about the realities of factory farming or other practices may be useful in promoting ethical behaviors. However, merely presenting information is probably not enough, as it must be taken as true, as well as retained. Therefore, it’s important for animal advocates to work on changing other aspects of the public’s psychology, such as their values and attitudes.
Finally, the study suggests that specific knowledge is relevant only to specific behaviors. For example, the results suggest that increasing people’s knowledge of factory farming is most relevant if you want to encourage them to support political actions on behalf of farmed animals, while increasing their knowledge of farmed animals is more relevant to encourage dietary change. Thus, it’s important for animal advocates to understand what type of education is needed (and how best to inform the public) before launching a new animal protection campaign.