Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Opinion Leaders

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.

November is World Vegan Month. To contribute to this month's activities, each day I will be presenting a social psychological concept or theory applied to abolitionist Nonhuman Animal rights. I began this series with a discussion of persuasion. Explorations into persuasion can be divided into research on the messenger, message, channel, and audienceOn November 10, I discussed the channel, or, how the message is disseminated.  Face-to-face interactions generally tend to be more persuasive, though there is something to be said for visually channeled messages (if those messages are not complex). Today I discuss the role of opinion leaders--those who are influential and trendsetting.

The media is thought to operate in a two-step flow.  That is, media first hits opinion leaders and then disseminates to friends, family, colleagues, and other persons who pay attention to opinion leader preferences.  Basically, media is popularized in being filtered through popular people.  The Girls Intelligence Agency, for example, targets popular preteen girls, sending them boxes of products to test on their friends at parties and sleepovers.  Oprah is another good example. Having a product featured with Oprah is a near guarantee that sales will skyrocket, something known as the "Oprah Effect."

This research points to the importance of direct, but also indirect, media influence.  Many abolitionist advocates can trace their being persuaded into abolitionism through Vegan Freaks podcasts with Jenna and Bob Torres.  PETA has long tapped into the indirect effect of opinion leaders in soliciting celebrities to endorse animal welfare messages.  Many of us can't help but get excited when influential celebrities like talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres go vegan and promote veganism to their audiences.

Of course, many of these celebrity endorsements are seriously problematic.  Ellen is still the face of CoverGirl, a company that sells products made from the flesh of other animals and also tests on other animals (I believe Ellen now supports "cage free" birds' egg consumption as well).  Most of those featured in PETA advertisements are not even vegan. Yet, while opinion leaders often fall short of a clear vegan message, their influence cannot be underestimated.  With more trendsetters going vegan, they both encourage and normalize veganism.

At the very least, we can attempt to shape that media which influences the influentials and hope to steer them into adopting veganism in an ethically coherent manner.  Perhaps, you are one of those influential people yourself?  My colleague Elizabeth Cherry (past president of the American Sociological Association's Animals & Society section) finds in much of her research that individuals are more likely to go vegan if they have others in their social networks who are vegan. These networks normalize veganism and ease the transition for newcomers.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Encourage well-known people to promote your message
  • Facilitate supportive networks to normalize veganism and prevent recidivism


Cherry, E.  2003.  "'It's Not Just a Diet':  Identity, Commitment, and Social Networks in Vegans."  MA Thesis, University of Georgia.

Katz, E. 1957.  "The Two-Step Flow of Communication:  An Up-to-Date Report on a Hypothesis."  Public Opinion Quarterly 21:  61-78.

Keller, E. and B. Berry.  2003.  The Influential:  One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy.  New York:  Free Press.