Thursday, November 13, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Selective Exposure

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 audience. Thus far, I have discussed what makes for an effective messengerwhat channels are most appropriate, and some ways to improve the message.  Today I discuss an important barrier to attitude change:  selective exposure.

Green Mountain College already had their minds set on killing Bill & Lou

Frustrated advocates often complain that many people simply don't want to listen to them ("I just don't want to know!).  Well, they're right.  Researchers have found that most people rely on selective exposure, that is, seeking out and paying attention mostly to information that supports one's preexisting views.  As Sweeny et al. (2010) describe, "people often opt to remain ignorant." The worry, of course, is that this deliberate close-mindedness will impact sound decision-making and hinder social movement success.

According to Sweeny et al. (2010), a multitude of personality traits interact to influence a person's tendency towards selective exposure.  For instance, some people engage information as a coping mechanism; while others ignore information as a coping mechanism.  Likewise, some people are more comfortable with uncertainty than others.  Ease of obtaining and interpreting information, as well as the amount of control a person feels over the consequences of that information, is also critical.  Therefore, sensitivity to individual characteristics is important.  Personal dispositions are largely outside of our control, yet, we can work to present veganism as an attainable and viable alternative.  A common response that illustrates this is, "I don't want to know because I could never go vegan."  We should not let anti-speciesist messages go ignored because veganism seems too unrealistic.

Hart et al. (2009) found that selection bias was highest when it was relevant to accomplishing a goal.  On the other hand, they suggest this bias could be reduced if an individual's attitudes were supported prior to information selection, if their attitudes are not strongly held or relevant to values, when the individual's level of close-mindedness is low, and, interestingly, when their confidence in the attitude is high.

Applying the findings of Hart et al. (2009), we should be cognizant of our audience's motivations.  It will be difficult, for example, to successfully present counterarguments to those economically involved in the exploitation of other animals (farmers, vivisectors, breeders, etc.).  However, we might be able to get through to others if we support their attitudes prior to the presentation of our argument.  This is known as a two-sided appeal, which tends to increase the credibility of the messenger.  For instance, we might acknowledge an individual's understanding of how other animals are treated and how they personally justify that treatment before offering our opposing information.  We might also target those who do not have strong preexisting attitudes about exploiting other animals and those who are relatively open-minded to ideas of nonhuman animal equality. 

On the other hand, those who are particularly confident in their attitudes may not feel threatened by exposure to opposing information and might not exhibit information avoidance--again it is those with a goal in mind that will be most resistant.  If that goal is to exploit other animals, persuasion may be difficult. The Bill and Lou controversy is an excellent example of this phenomenon.  Green Mountain College had already decided they were going to slaughter the two oxen, and, despite claims of open discourse on the issue, the onslaught of opposing information from advocates did little to sway them.  Instead, the college drew on "ecological" and "sustainability" arguments to support their goal of killing and eating Bill and Lou.

For the Vegan Toolkit
Avoid selective exposure tendencies by using two-sided appeals or targeting those without strong preexisting attitudes about speciesism.


Fischer, P. and T. Greitemeyer.  2010.  "A New Look at Selective-Exposure Effects:  An Integrative Model."  Current Directions in Psychological Science 19:  384-389.

Hart, W., D. Albarracin, A. Eagly, I. Brechan, M. Lindberg, and L. Merrill.  2009.  "Feeling Validated Versus Being Correct:  A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information."  Psychological Bulletin 135:  555-588.

Sweeny, K., D. Melnyk, W. Miller, J. Shepperd.  2010.  "Information Avoidance:  Who, What, When, and Why."  Review of General Psychology 14:  340-353.