Sunday, November 2, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Reason and Emotion

The following essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.  Because I am publishing a book on this topic in 2015, posts will be significantly edited due to potential copyright conflicts. 

In celebration of World Vegan Month, I am presenting a daily blog series applying the science of social psychology to vegan outreach. I begin this series with a discussion of persuasion to be divided into research on the messengermessagechannel, and audience.  On November 1st I spoke to increasing the persuasiveness of the messenger.  Today's article will focus on the message, specifically, the role of reason and emotion.

Direct Action Everywhere advocate is mocked by diners following her emotional appeal to Nonhuman Animal rights.

Reason and Emotion

In vegan advocacy, there is some degree of contention between the use of reasoned arguments (like intellectual appeals or theory) or emotional arguments (using images or descriptions that create emotional reactions). The utility of reason and emotion in advocacy depends on the audience. If the audience is analytically minded, they will probably be more responsive to a rational approach.  Peripheral information may be more useful for audiences that are uninterested in the message. 

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement certainly utilizes both reason and emotion to persuade.  Theoretical arguments tend to dominate the academic realm, but social movement organizations rely quite heavily on emotional appeals with graphic or shocking imagery and celebrity endorsements.  Again, the nature of the audience will determine the effectiveness of emotional appeals.  As one example, some research indicates that graphic Nonhuman Animal rights imagery is more effective with liberal audiences and less effective on conservative religious audiences.

Emotion tends to be the greatest incentive for behavioral change, but using emotion to persuade can be tricky. For one, a reliance on peripheral cues means participants are recruited without having to understand the issues.  Consider a charity to feed children in Africa: sad images and brief appeals are made to successfully encourage viewers to donate money. This may spark action, but Western viewers are not encouraged to understand the structural causes for this suffering and how their participation in globally exploitative or politically oppressive practices may actually be aggravating the problem.  Viewers don't know exactly why hunger in Africa manifests or if their donation is really the best solution, but the morally shocking images persuade them to act.

In Nonhuman Animal rights, there is real potential for new recruits to fall into familiar, but unproductive welfarist pathways in advocacy spaces. New advocates who are burdened with the traumatic knowledge of exploitation will desperately want to do something for other animals "right now."  Because emotional tactics are favored by welfare organizations, welfare reform becomes the default response for new vegans.  This is not to say that emotions are not powerful motivators in social movement mobilization, but they should be used cautiously.

For the Vegan Toolkit
  • Choose reason or emotion based on audience
  • Peripheral cues helpful for an uninterested audience
  • Take caution with emotional appeals given the predominance of welfare ideology


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Hovland et al. 1949. Experiments on Mass Communication. Studies in Social Psychology in World War II (Vol. 3). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Monteiro, C.  2012.  "The Effects of Graphic Images on Attitudes Towards Animal Rights."  Action Reports, FARM.  Retrieved from:

Petty et al. 1981. "Personal Involvement as a Determinant of Argument-Based Persuasion." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41: 847-855.