Thursday, November 6, 2014

Applying Social Psychology to Vegan Outreach: Fear-Framed Persuasion

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 audience. On November 2nd I spoke to increasing the persuasiveness of the message through reason or emotion, and on November 4th I discussed how the facilitation of good feelings was particularly useful.  Today I explore the other side of that coin:  fear and persuasion.

Fear tactics are often applied in public health campaigns like the push to end smoking and tanning.  Fear creates vulnerability which facilitates response.  One French study found that fear-arousing images on television altered youth attitudes towards alcohol consumption.  Another study found that 2/3rds of participants who viewed a fear-framed message about breast cancer got a mammogram within 12 months (versus only one half who viewed the positive message).

Importantly, if an alternative plan or solution is offered, a fear-framed message will be more effective.  So, for instance, vegan advocates could suggest that consuming nonhuman animal products is linked to chronic health problems, but should also suggest plant-based alternatives.  Likewise, framing messages as something gained rather than lost is more useful.  So, rather than emphasize what vegans must give up, they should emphasize the ethical benefits gained and the variety of new vegan foods available.

As with eliciting good feelings, negative feelings, too, could backfire in pushing people to go vegan without seriously considering the message.  If individuals are going vegan because they fear the health consequences of a nonvegan diet, environmental destruction, karmic retribution, etc., they are less likely to embrace the critical thinking so desperately needed in our stagnating movement.  Implicit attitude changes are rarely as deep-rooted and lasting as explicit, cognitively involved attitude changes.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Fear tactics should be presented with alternatives to undesirable behavior
  • Frame messages as something gained, not lost
  • Utilize fear tactics carefully to avoid weak behavior change or recidivism 
  • Don't use discrimination as a fear tactic (see above PETA advert)


Banks, S., P. Salovey, S. Greener, A. Rothman, A. Moyer, J. Beauvais, and E. Epel.  1995.  "The Effects of Message Framing on Mammography Utilization."  Health Psychology 14:  178-184.

de Hoog, N. W. Stroebe, and J. de Wit.  2004.  "Charismatic Leadership, Environmental Dynamism, and Performance."  European Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology 13:  447-471.

Devos-Comby, L. and P. Salovey.  2002.  "Applying Persuasion Strategies to Alter HIV-Relevant Thoughts and Behavior."  Review of General Psychology 6:  287-304.

Levy-Leboyer, C.  1988.  "Success and Failure in Applying Psychology."  American Psychologist 43:  779-785.

Maddux, J. and R. Rogers.  1983.  "Protection Motivation and Self-Efficacy:  A Revised Theory of Fear Appeals and Attitude Change."  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 19:  469-479.

O'Keefe, D. and J. Jensen.  2011.  "The Relative Effectiveness of Gain-Framed and Loss-Framed Persuasive Appeals Concerning Obesity-Related Behaviors:  Meta-Analytic Evidence and Implications."  In R. Batra, P. Keller, and V. Strecher (Eds.), Leveraging Consumer Psychology for Effective Health Communications:  The Obesity Challenge (pp. 171-185).  Armonk, NY:  Sharpe.

Ruiter, R., C. Abraham, and G. Kok.  2001.  "Scary Warnings and Rational Precautions:  A Review of the Psychology of Fear Appeals."  Psychology and Health 16:  613-630.