The Psychology Of Flexitarianism
Flexitarians are omnivores who make some attempt to limit the amount of animal products they consume. While the number of vegetarians and vegans remains low in most countries (4-5% in the U.S. and U.K.), the number of flexitarians is far larger, with numbers as high as 14% in the U.K. (see our report on Flexitarians here)
The diet of a flexitarian sits somewhere in between omnivorouss and vegetarian, with each ‘flexi’ residing somewhere along the continuum. But vegetarianism isn’t just a diet choice. It’s a lifestyle and identity that is chosen for a variety of reasons, including moral reasons, environmental reasons, health reasons, and more. Vegetarians as a group have a different psychology than omnivores. So the question is: what is the psychology of flexitarians?
This was the question researchers set out to answer in a study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference. They recruited 564 flexitarians and 154 vegetarians and asked them a variety of questions on why they avoided meat. They also asked the flexitarians whether they intended to go vegetarian at some point in the future. All of the data from the study is freely available for anyone to look at here. (If any of you data-lovers out there have a poke around and find something interesting, let us know! We’d love to hear it).
Firstly, they found that there were no age or income differences between flexitarians and vegetarians on average. It seems both veggies and flexis are found in every age bracket and social class. Interestingly, both vegetarians and flexitarians reported having the same number of vegetarians in their social networks. This might indicate that having vegetarian friends doesn’t make you more likely to go vegetarian yourself. The study was just a snapshot of people’s lives at one point in time though, so it’s hard to tell from this data alone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that flexitarians were much less likely to say that avoiding meat was central to their identity than vegetarians were. They were less judgmental of omnivores’ choice to eat meat, and less likely to believe that eating meat was morally wrong. Interestingly, flexitarians were more likely to think that society judged them positively for avoiding meat. Put another way, vegetarians were less optimistic about how their diet was viewed by society. This could be because society judges flexitarians less than full vegetarians because they are seen as less ‘threatening’ to the social norm of meat eating.
Another thing the researchers found was that flexitarians were less likely to be avoiding meat for a cause beyond themselves, like animal welfare or the environment. Interestingly though, personal benefits for avoiding meat were also less important to flexitarians than vegetarians. For example, vegetarians were more likely to avoid meat because it improved their wellbeing. We might think that the personal benefits of avoiding meat (e.g. better health) would entice people to become flexitarians, but that people only go fully vegetarian if it’s for a higher cause than themselves. This might be true, but these findings suggest that even among vegetarians, the personal benefits are still a motivating factor.
An important limitation of all of these results is that they’re correlational. Based on this data, we cannot say that having these beliefs cause people to become vegetarian. Encouraging flexitarians to identify strongly as ‘a person who avoids meat’ could help them along the path to vegetarianism. Or It could be the other way around; going vegetarian might cause people to change their attitude towards meat over time.
The researchers also asked flexitarians whether they were intending to go vegetarian at some point in their life. The things that were associated with wanting to go veggie were a bit obvious, but the biggest factor was that flexitarians who took pride in avoiding meat, and who avoided meat for a cause beyond themselves, were most likely to say they intended to go veg. What may be more interesting are the things that weren’t related to intention to go veggie. These included believing that society looks favourably on vegetarians and having more vegetarians in your social network or community.
All of this comes with the caveat that intentions don’t always translate into behaviour, so we can’t be certain that these factors will eventually cause these people to go vegetarian; we’d need long term follow-ups for that.
Bearing in mind the correlational nature of the study, this still might give us some leads on how best to convert the large number of flexitarians we see today into card-carrying vegetarians (and then perhaps, onto being vegans!).
- It seems that a key strategy is to solidify their meat-avoiding identity. Encourage flexitarians to take pride in their decision to avoid meat.
- While flexitarians don’t always think of themselves as being part of a wider ‘meat reducing’ movement, those who do say they’re more likely to go veg in the future. Cultivating this wider awareness might be a good idea.
- That said, the personal benefits of being vegetarian are still a significant factor in convincing people to take up full vegetarianism.
- On the other hand, emphasising the numbers of veg people in someone’s social networks and community might seem like it would work, but this study suggests it might not.
Overall, the main value of this study is the call to understand the psychology of omnivores and flexitarians in order to be more effective in reaching them with a meat avoiding message.