When Science And Appetite Collide
It’s no longer a secret that diets based on red meat are not good for people or the planet. And while consumers say they are willing to decrease the amount of meat they eat, consumption data fails to show much real behavior change.
Governments have tried various strategies to change consumers’ food choices. But it’s become clear that providing scientific information about the dangers of red meat and the health benefits of a plant-based diet is important but not enough to effect wholesale change. In this study, Finnish researchers examined why consumers of meat-based diets are not convinced by scientific evidence to change their eating habits. They also wanted to know whether consumers of meat-based and plant-based diets attend to information differently.
Part of this may have to do with a personality trait termed the “need for cognition” (NFC). Individuals with NFC enjoy activities or tasks that require thinking. NFC can thus identify persons who tend to assess the quality of information and seek to learn from sources providing a variety of viewpoints. Those with little NFC aren’t as motivated to seek out health or nutrition information or to learn more about the environmental effects of food choices.
The data was gathered in an online survey of Finnish residents. The study design only captured associations between variables so the direction of causality could not be determined. The results indicated that commercial sources of information were linked with a meat-based diet, while scientific sources were linked with a plant-based diet. Participants’ subjective ability to evaluate the quality of information was positively related to the perceived influence of scientific information and negatively related to the perceived influence of commercial sources; in other words, if respondents valued scientific information, they had a better ability to evaluate the quality of information in general. Respondents who valued environmental sustainability reported consuming less red meat and more plant-based alternatives. Those motivated by personal health also ate more plant-based alternatives.
Animal advocates can use these results to clarify their communication strategies. Given that consumers have different motives and abilities to evaluate information, they need to be targeted with different messages in order to affect behavior change. To convince meat-eaters to try more plant-based foods, it’s important to target their motives for eating meat such as taste and habits. It’s also critical to avoid negative references to the health and environmental effects of eating red meat, which meat-eaters strongly disbelieve.
Advocates can consider adopting the techniques of advertising: emotional appeals, celebrities, or community connections can be effective with those with a low need for cognition. Information about the environmental impacts of meat consumption could play well with environmentally-conscious or more educated consumers.