Monday, November 17, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Social Responsibility Norm

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 messengermessagechannel, and audience. Thus far, I have discussed what makes for an effective messenger, what channels are most appropriate, and some ways to improve the message.  Today I discuss an important pro-social norm that can ease persuasion.

The norm of social responsibility speculates that people will help even when there is no expectation of reciprocation and even when that help remains anonymous.  However, there tends to be two stipulations:  1) The person or group needing help should be perceived as unable to control their circumstances, and 2) The situation must garner sympathy.

That social responsibility is a social norm is good news for social movements everywhere, but particularly for abolitionist vegan advocates, as the work put into advancing the interests of other animals often has limited returns.  However, we can potentially increase participation by highlighting how other animals are truly victims with very little control over their circumstances.  Recall from my article on the just-world phenomenon, humans tend to blame victims--so, Nonhuman Animals are often framed as "stupid," ugly, hateful, or otherwise deserving of their exploitation and death.  It should be a priority of advocates, then, to counter these stereotypes and restore personhood to these animals. 

Secondly, arousing sympathy is necessary to evoke the social responsibility norm.  Restoring Nonhuman Animal personhood is a major step in accomplishing this, but we should also not shy completely from describing conditions (even "humane" conditions) experienced by Nonhuman Animals.  I argued earlier this month that the utilization of emotion is immensely useful in mobilizing activists, and surely this is related to how narratives, photographs, and images can elicit sympathy.  Keep in mind, however, that a message too heavily reliant on emotion might only be useful in creating superficial, short-lived change.  For this reason, partnering emotional appeals with rational appeals seems to be a safer approach.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Create a feeling of social responsibility
  • Focus on Nonhuman Animals as unable to help themselves
  • Use descriptions of suffering to garner sympathy
  • Counter negative stereotypes about other animals


Berkowitz, L.  1972.  "Social Norms, Feelings, and Other Factors Affecting Helping and Altruism."  In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 6).  New York:  Academic Press.

Rudolph, U., S. Roesch, T. Greitenmeyer, B. Weiner.  2004.  "A Meta-Analytic Review of Help-Giving and Aggression From an Attributional Perspective:  Contributions to a General Theory of Motivation."  Cognition and Emotion 18:  815-848.

Schwartz, S.  1975.  "The Justice of Need and the Activation of Humanitarian Norms."  Journal of Social Issues 31 (3):  111-136.

Shotland, R. and C. Stebbins.  1983.  "Emergency and Cost as Determinants of Helping Behavior and the Slow Accumulation of Social Psychological Knowledge." Social Psychology Quarterly 46:  36-46.

Weiner, B.  1980.  "A Cognitive (Attribution)-Emotion-Action Model of Motivated Behavior:  An Analysis of Judgements of Help-Giving."  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39:  186-200.