Monday, November 24, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Forewarning

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 messenger, what channels are most appropriate, and some ways to improve the message. On November 21st, I began discussing audience, in particular, the impact of age on attitude change.  Another audience element that influences persuasion is a forewarned audience.

Defense attorneys use forewarning to weaken the prosecution's effect

If an audience is warned ahead of time that they are about to be exposed to a persuasion attempt, it is less likely that they will actually be persuaded.  Forewarning creates resistance (Freedman and Sears 1965).  In the courtroom, if a defense attorney warns the jury of the upcoming prosecution evidence, again, attitude change can be mitigated (Dolnik et al. 2003).

What this means for vegan outreach efforts is that a "surprise attack" should be more effective.  Vegan Outreach is successful in this tactic in hiring unassuming college-aged advocates to quietly hand out booklets to students during the rush between classes.  Students will accept the booklets (either unconsciously or out of politeness) without any interaction with the Vegan Outreach employee.  It is only as they flip through the material en route to class that they are presented with veganism.  Often, when I lecture on veganism, I present an anti-speciesism argument embedded in a sociological inquiry into oppression and inequality.  In another example, a student group I was once involved with gave away free vegan cookies on campus and only after they had been tasted did we divulge that they were vegan.

Sneaky advocacy is sometimes the better approach--if people know that a persuasion attempt is eminent, they will fortify their mental defenses and will not budge.  While there is something to be said for being blatant about the vegan message (recall that the mere-exposure effect illustrates that the more someone is exposed to something, the more favorably they will come to view it), if you are giving a presentation or otherwise dealing with a stubborn audience, forewarning them may not be a good move.  By all means, normalize veganism wherever possible (wear t-shirts, post fliers for vegan meetups, table regularly, etc.), but if you can manage to enter into a persuasive discussion with your audience without forewarning them, that approach should be most effective.  In the Freedman and Sears (1965) study, the title of the presentation was all it took to dissuade the audience.  Avoid titles like, "Why You Should Not Consume Animal Products."

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Do not forewarn audience that a persuasion attempt is imminent
  • For outreach events, do not use titles that suggest a persuasion attempt


Dolnik, L., T. Case, and K. Williams.  2003.  "Stealing Thunder as a Courtroom Tactic Revisted:  Processes and Boundaries."  Law and Human Behavior 27:  265-285.

Freedman, J. and D. Sears.  1965.  "Warning, Distraction, and Resistance to Influence."  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1:  262-266.