Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Ingroup Bias

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 audienceThus far, I have discussed what makes for an effective messenger, what channels are most appropriate, and some ways to improve the message.  On November 16th and 17th, I discussed two social norms that influence pro-social behavior:  reciprocity and social responsibility.  Both have some evolutionary basis but are also reinforced through socialization in many human cultures.  Another tendency in human society that helps explain the urge to help is in-group bias.

Human in-group bias is an important barrier to anti-speciesism

Humans have a tendency to create in-groups (us) and out-groups (them).  Occupying an in-group is important for self esteem, identity, community, and safety.  Out-groups are often the natural result of in-group construction.  We need a "them" to help define the "us."  Naturally, just as we favor ourselves, we tend to favor our in-group as an extension of ourselves and inclusive of those like us and most important to us.  Social psychologists have confirmed that in-group bias (this favoring of "us") leads individuals to be more empathetic and helpful to those in their in-group.  While some literature recognizes that culture and class elicit in-group bias (those of another culture or class are less likely to be helped), the literature on racial in-group bias is mixed (race is not always consequential).

The flip-side of in-group bias, of course, is that favoring of "us" over "them," usually entails puffing up the in-group and belittling the out-group.  "Separate but equal," as we know, is a fallacy.  Creating differences usually means creating a hierarchy of worth.  For those unfortunate others who are not included in the in-group, if that in-group is particularly powerful and the out-group is particularly vulnerable, those outsiders can become seriously disadvantaged.

In applications to Nonhuman Animal rights advocacy, we can point to a long cultural history of otherizing Nonhuman Animals.  Human beings have carved for themselves one large species-based in-group, and all others who occupy the out-group of "nonhuman" are thus viewed as lesser-than and as resources.  So long as other animals are excluded from the in-group of humanity, those in the in-group will not be particularly swayed to consider their interests.  This is why many theorists and activists struggle to expand human in-group boundaries to include other animals by reframing the group as one based in sentience rather than cognitive abilities.  In recognizing human/nonhuman similarities (which, biologically outnumber the dissimilarities), humans--as fellow sentient beings--should be more likely to help.  And, as we've seen from the research that challenges racial bias, if race can be overcome in one's inclination to help, surely species can be overcome as well.  Indeed, for thousands of advocates, it already has.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Challenge notions that Nonhuman Animals are especially different from humans
  • Reject similarities in cognition in favor of similarities in sentience


Emswiller, T., K. Deaux, and J. Willits.  1971.  "Similarity, Sex, and Requests for Small Favors."  Journal of Applied Social Psychology 1:  284-291.

Miller, P. J. Kozu, and A. Davis.  2001.  "Social Influence, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Cross-Cultural  Perspective."  In W. Wosinka, R. Cialdini, D. Barrett, and J. Reykowski (Eds.), The Practice of Social Influence in Multiple Cultures.  Mahwah, NJ:  Erlbaum.

Myers, D. 2013. Social Psychology, 11th ed. McGraw Hill.