Thursday, November 27, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Free-riders

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. I have also discussed what predisposes some to help as well as some important barriers. For social movements, a particularly relevant barrier is the tendency for people to free-ride.

Free-riding means that people may support the need for help or social change, but might abstain from helping or participating in a social movement to avoid the perceived costs and risks involved.  They suppose that, despite their lack of contribution, they will nonetheless reap the benefits achieved by others who participate and incur those costs and risks.  Take, for instance, the civil rights movement.  Images of people being sprayed with high powered water hoses, attacked by police dogs, and vicious public backlash against protesters permeated the news.  In the modern day gay rights movement, those who come out in support face discrimination in their own lives and many have even lost their jobs (Taylor and Raeburn 1995).  Participation can be scary--and some might rationalize that it would be safer to stay at home and let others do the dirty work.

When protest can be so dangerous, how do we motivate participation?

Of course, if everyone free-rides, the common good can never be achieved.  If many participate, on the other hand, the costs and risks are more widely distributed and social change is more easily achieved.  There are several ways that free-riding can be overcome, but I will specifically mention three:  Appealing to altruistic norms, making individual participation visible, and building a group identity.

As I discussed in earlier articles, there are several social norms that facilitate pro-social behavior.  The norm of reciprocity states that we will give with the expectation of return.  However, the norm of social responsibility also exists and people will help often with no expectation of return. Secondly, when individuals are made accountable for their contributions, they are more likely to continue participating.  Voting is a great example of how free-riding can materialize.  One person's individual vote is not likely to sway the outcome of the election--so what incentive is there for people to go out of their way to cast a vote?

We can more easily overcome this in social movements through communication and in smaller groups.  Larger organizations have overtaken the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in an effort to maximize resource mobilization.  But for many reasons (namely the compromising effect professionalization has), this is detrimental for achieving social change.  Specifically, the arena of large charity organizations reduces the number of opportunities for individual communication and it reduces the personal responsibility one feels when their contributions are noticeably meaningful.  Donating $20 to PETA for an annual membership seems like a drop in a large, anonymous bucket; donating an hour of your time with a grassroots abolitionist organization has a more visible impact. The communication, feedback, and community one experiences in grassroots activism is far more motivating than generic donation requests and online petitions.

Creating identity and community prevents free-riding

Likewise,  group identity can be a powerful motivator. Identity creates a sense of belonging and a sense of responsibility to the group.  Identity has been useful for vegans as well (Cherry 2006).  Small, grassroots groups are probably better situated to fostering an identity.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Foster networks and communities
  • Emphasize why individual contributions matter
  • Acknowledge individual contributions
  • Reduce unnecessary costs, risks, or dangers associated with participation
  • Emphasize rewards to participation


Armstrong, E.  2002.  Forging Gay Identities:  Organizing in San Francisco, 1950-1994.  Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press.

Bernstein, M.  1997.  "Celebration and Suppression:  The Strategic Uses of Identity by the Lesbian and Gay Movement."  American Journal of Sociology 103 (3):  531-565.

Cherry, E.  2006.  "Veganism as a Cultural Movement:  A Relational Approach."  Social Movement Studies 5 (2):  155-170.

Taylor, V. and N. Raeburn.  1995.  "Identity Politics as High-Risk Activism:  Career Consequences for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Sociologists."  Social Problems 42 (2):  252-273.