Monday, November 3, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Fatty Acids and Aggression

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. 

To celebrate World Vegan Month, each day I will be presenting a social psychological concept or theory applied to abolitionist nonhuman animal rights.  I began the month with a discussion of persuasion, which I intend to continue later this week.  However, I take a short deviation to discuss the role of diet and aggression.

In social psychology, the concept of aggression is rather controversial, because it represents a human phenomenon that is neither completely socialized or completely biological.  Thus, it becomes a good example of the "nature" vs. "nurture" debate.  For anyone immersed in the online Nonhuman Animal rights community (and perhaps to some extent this extends off-line as well), aggressive displays seem par for the course.  Indeed, cyberbullying and harassment run rampant.  Many social psychologists link cyberbullying to deindividuation and anonymity, both of which are inherent to online communication.  These characteristics make victimizing easier and less risky, but other researchers suggest that perhaps diet may also be at play.

In a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of British prisoners, researchers found that those who received vitamin supplements committed less offenses, displayed less antisocial behavior, and were less aggressive overall (Gesch et al. 2002).  In a previous study, violent offenders were found to be deficient in omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids (Corrigan et al. 1994).  Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to brain function, and a poor diet could be linked with aggression.1

Because these fatty acids are largely found in the flesh of fishes, vegans who do not eat an adequately varied diet or otherwise supplement will be disadvantaged.  Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include hemp seeds, seaweed, flax seeds, chia seeds, cauliflower, hummus, and brussel sprouts.  Perhaps cyber-bullying vegans need to start supplementing.

In actuality, aggressiveness in online interactions are probably more to do with socialized internet norms and the patriarchal nature of online spaces, but these studies should be a reminder that maintaining a healthy diet is important for physical as well as mental health.  However, because incarcerated participants in these studies were not eating plant-based diets, these results do not indicate that vegan diets are necessarily any riskier. Non-vegan diets are prone to fatty acid deficiencies as well.


1. Readers should be cognizant that prisoners find themselves incarcerated due to police profiling and institutional discrimination more often than aggression. Aggression is also known to manifest as a result of incarceration. Further, these studies might presume a "normal" or "ideal" type of mental functioning that could aggravate disableism.


Corrigan et al. 1994.  "Fatty acid analysis of blood from violent offenders." Journal of Forensic Psychiatry 5:  83-92.

Gesch et al.  2002.  "Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners."  British Journal of Psychiatry 181:  22-28.