The Royal ‘We’: The Power Of Inclusive Animal Advocacy
Meat consumption is a social norm in the vast majority of the world. As with most common social customs, attempts to change it are met with skepticism and hostility. As animal advocates, we need to understand the psychology behind people’s apprehension towards change in order to better tune our message to have the greatest impact. This study looked at how language and identity shape university students’ reactions to a campaign to reduce meat consumption.
The study took place in Ghent, Belgium, and involved 186 business students from Ghent University, all of whom ate meat at least once per week. The sex distribution was roughly even, and ages from 18 to 24 were represented. The researchers created a Facebook post from a fictional fellow student named Alex which asked everyone reading to reduce their meat consumption. Two versions of the post were created: one which used inclusive language (“We must reduce our meat consumption”) and one which used personal language (“You must reduce your meat consumption”). Participants would also receive a short description of Alex, which either identified them as a meat eater or a vegetarian. Alex’s gender would also change to match each participant.
From there, a questionnaire would then be given, asking the participant about the message’s legitimacy, Alex’s favorability, Alex’s inconsistency, and their own willingness to reduce their meat consumption. Participants would also be give some information about their own meat consumption habits and how strongly they viewed eating meat as part of their identity. The researchers hypothesized that inclusive language would be more favorably received than personal language. In addition, they believed that the tests with Alex as a meat-eater would have opposing effects: on the one hand, membership in an in-group would make the participants more receptive, but on the other hand, they might perceive them as inconsistent or hypocritical. They believed the opposite would be true for vegetarian Alex: they would be less favorably-viewed due to their out-group status, but they would not be perceived as inconsistent.
To the researchers’ surprise, both vegetarian and meat-eating Alex were perceived as inconsistent, although meat-eating Alex was perceived as being more so. Perceived inconsistency was positively correlated with the participants’ own dietary habits and sense of identity, with people who identified strongly as meat-eaters viewing the message less favorably and Alex as less consistent. However, when perceived inconsistency was taken as a given, the post with inclusive language was perceived more favorably than the post with personal language. Participants who identified less-strongly as meat-eaters and viewed Alex as more consistent were more likely to view their message favorably and more willing to reduce their own meat consumption.
The researchers have some theories as to why both versions of Alex were perceived as inconsistent, one of which is that the vegetarian advocate may be seen as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” asking for a mere reduction when their primary goal is elimination.
This study has several key takeaways for animal advocates. Inclusive language seems to be preferable to personal language. Even if we personally don’t consume any animal products, saying “we” instead of “you” is less confrontational and more effective overall. This is especially important given that both vegetarians and meat-eaters are perceived as inconsistent by those who are strongly against reducing their own meat consumption.
Secondly, we have to operate under the assumption that many of the people we are attempting to reach will view us as inconsistent, no matter our personal habits. With that as a given, inclusive language seems to temper negative reactions to our message. Personal language can come across as argumentative or accusative, while inclusive language puts everyone on the same side: against the problem.