Using Nudges To Make Change For Animals
For animal advocates, convincing people to choose more plant-based foods can be quite challenging, particularly if those foods are unfamiliar. Sometimes campaigns to promote plant-based food over meat can even have the opposite effect and drive people away.
Why is it so difficult?
We tend to think of ourselves as rational beings who make thoughtful, careful decisions in our lives, but that is rarely the case. Every day, we are bombarded with messages in our environment that affect how we think and feel without realizing it. Subtle sights, sounds, words, and smells that we encounter can shift the decisions we make. We might intend to choose a salad for lunch at a restaurant because we want to be healthy, but when we smell freshly baked cinnamon buns in the air, we decide to order the bun instead. Alternatively, we may intend on eating an indulgent meal at a buffet but when the beginning of the buffet is filled with vegetables and low-calorie options, we might fill up on those and not have room for the less healthy options.
Both of those situations are examples of a “nudge.” Nudges are changes to our environment or “choice architecture” that make one or more options more likely to be chosen. Choice architecture can include the location where the decision is made (e.g. sights, smells, physical effort), perception of the choices (e.g., getting people to think about future choices, using words that bring up memories and emotions), presentation and availability of the options (e.g., smaller packaging, placed at eye level) or knowledge (e.g., labels). Nudges seem to work by increasing the value, saliency or popularity of an option as opposed to decreasing the value of another option.
Thaler & Sunstein coined the term “nudge” in their popular 2008 book, appropriately entitled “Nudge” but the idea that behavior can be shifted without conscious awareness has been around for decades in the fields of psychology and behavioral economics. The consensus is that we have two types of thinking: one is automatic, fast, and unconscious, while the other is slow, effortful, and conscious. Nudges take advantage of the shortcuts/rules of thumb we exhibit when the automatic/unconscious type of thinking is being used. For example, someone may have family and friends that have animals on their farms who are treated humanely and think that all farms are similar when in fact, most factory farms cause enormous suffering. Nudges are distinct from other behavioral interventions in that they are subtle and easy to implement. Importantly, nudges do NOT remove freedom of choice — people can always choose other options with ease. Placing plant-based foods at eye level would be a nudge, but banning traditional meat would not.
How Can Nudges Increase Plant-Based Eating?
One of the strongest cognitive biases we have is the tendency towards inertia. We like to stick with the status quo. To leverage that tendency, we can use default vegan/vegetarian options at restaurants or cafeterias, with a surcharge to add meat. People are more likely to stick with the veg options than to ask for a different menu or pay for added meat. To make it even more impactful, you can take advantage of the power of social norms (see our other post) by stating how many people have recently started eating more plant-based foods instead of meat. Seeing that other people are changing for something important can inspire our own behavior change. Another effective default is to have prepackaged or portioned plant-based foods in cafeterias and buffets that are easy to grab and take. Interestingly, placing vegetarian items on a separate section in a menu actually decreased choice of vegetarian options compared to a control menu; however, the section was placed at the end of the menu instead of the beginning which likely had an impact.
Reposition plant-based food.
Physical inertia is also powerful. Very simple changes to where plant-based food is placed, such as moving plant-based items closer to the checkout counter at stores/kiosks or placing plant-based items at the beginning of a buffet, can increase purchase behaviour by redirecting attention to those foods instead of meat-based foods.
Exposing people to certain words or other cues (called priming) can bring up emotions and memories of related concepts that shifts their behavior without them knowing. When people are asked to think about and predict their future actions, they are more likely to do them. For example, you could have a sign or advertisement that says something like “Were you thinking about trying a Beyond Meat Burger today?” in restaurants or online grocery stores. The way plant-based foods are framed can also be helpful. People are typically more sensitive to losing something than gaining something of the same value and therefore try to avoid losses. Communicating the advantages of plant-based foods in terms of gains instead of losses would be more effective (e.g.delicious or fresh instead of meat-free or low fat).
Research on the effectiveness of nudges to promote plant-based eating is still in its infancy so some important questions remain.
1) Does a nudge lead to long-lasting changes in behavior? (e.g. do people who initially choose more plant-based food(s) because of a nudge continue buying them months later)? Humans are strongly influenced by habits. A habit is created when a behavior is initially associated with some type of cue in the environment and then repeated many times until the behavior becomes automatic when exposed to that cue. For example, if a default veg menu was used at a coffee shop that someone always frequented on their way to work, even the sight or thought of work may increase veg choices in the long run. On the flip side, nudges will have a difficult time working against a very strong habit (e.g. if someone always gets a hotdog at a baseball game, it may be difficult for them to overcome that habit and choose a plant-based option).
2) Does a nudge towards one behavior lead to an increase in other similar behaviors? (e.g. do people who choose more plant-based meat because of a nudge also reduce consumption of other animal products?)
Cognitive dissonance theory, as originally developed by Festinger in his 1957 book “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” would suggest that people may be more likely to keep choosing the nudge option after the first time. When we do something that is out of the norm for us, we experience surprise and discomfort. We either need to decide that the behavior was an exception for us or rationalize that the behaviour is actually in line with our beliefs and values. A meat-eater may begin to think of themselves as an animal advocate after trying plant-based meat for the first time and continue choosing plant-based foods in other situations.
3) Do nudges work on everyone or does it depend on prior attitudes/beliefs/social norms? So far, it does seem that choosing vegetable options depends on attitudes and norms of the individual and their friends and family towards vegetables. Likewise, we’ve already discussed the impact of changing social norms and plant-based eating (see post). People who have a strong attachment to meat may also be more difficult to shift through a nudge.
Nudges are just one of the many ways we can influence people’s behavior. We are excited to see how future research could help inform animal advocates on the best ways to use nudges to increase plant-based diets.