Part 1 of It’s Social Norms, Stupid
This post is the first in a series of three articles. In part one, I make the case that the farmed animal movement’s dominant theory of change neglects the role of social norms in shaping people’s attachment to meat. As a result, current strategies are insufficient to bring about the end of animal farming. In part two, I’ll introduce the science of social networks, which has cast new light on how changes in norms spread. In part three, I present social movements as a potent strategy for unleashing the power of social networks to change norms at scale, particularly in the case of animal freedom.
- Some advocates hope that if animal-free foods compete with animal meat in taste, price, and convenience, they will be widely adopted, reducing meat consumption.
- But research shows deeper obstacles to changing the public's meat-buying habits.
- People have cultural attachments to meat from animals and value its perceived naturalness.
- Perhaps more importantly, entrenched norms and social reinforcement make it hard for most people to imagine changing their habits.
- The animal movement is currently neglecting these social and cultural factors and should pursue new strategies to address this gap. Strategies focused on improving the taste, price, and accessibility of meat alternatives are useful and may be necessary but are not sufficient to end animal farming.
What’s in a Food Choice?
At a recent conference, I had a chance to hear Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute give his standard talk on GFI’s work. In case you’re not familiar, GFI exists to support the development of animal-free foods by coordinating the industry, conducting research, and lobbying. I’ve heard a fair amount about GFI’s theory of change, and I wasn’t expecting anything surprising, though I was impressed with how polished and forceful a talk Bruce fit into 15 minutes. It was reassuring to imagine him as a representative for the cause, giving this pitch to legislators.
Yet even though I knew to expect it, one moment in Bruce’s talk has been replaying in my mind: when he asserted that “people decide what to eat based on taste, price, and convenience.” I’m so familiar with this argument that it exists in my head as an acronym: the TPC postulate.1 The TPC postulate holds that the moment animal-free foods taste the same or better, cost the same or less, and are as accessible as animal meat, people will choose to buy them instead.
A substantial portion of the animal movement’s resources is invested in the TPC postulate each year.2 Organizations using this theory of change work either to improve animal-free foods or to drive up the cost of producing animal meat. The latter is one strategic argument I’ve heard in favor of welfare campaigns for cage-free eggs or the Better Chicken Commitment for chickens raised for meat: higher welfare products are more expensive to produce and thus less competitive with ever-improving alternatives. Together, these two parts of the movement (those working to drive up the cost of meat or drive down the cost of alternatives) make up what I call the Economic Theory of Change.
This is what Bruce was referring to when he said that “people decide what to eat based on taste, price, and convenience.” There’s just one problem: that statement has some major flaws. In fact, the TPC postulate makes a huge error, one which highlights what I believe is the biggest gap in the animal advocacy ecosystem today.3 My goal for this series of posts is to illuminate that gap and chart a path for how to fill it, using three closely related ideas: social norms, social networks, and social movements.
The Price of Eggs in Chinatown
Where in the world is the missing piece of the TPC postulate? We might begin our search in New York City. Like most cities, NYC grows virtually no food; food is brought in on trains, trucks, and boats from all over the world. From the standpoint of taste, price, and convenience, everyone in the city has access to basically the same foods at the same price. Yet on a day’s walk through Queens and Brooklyn, you could pass through a dozen ethnic enclaves and watch the food environment change dramatically. Totally different foods dominate in Chinatown than in Petit Senegal, Bangla Town, or Jamaica.
As a reader at this point, I’d be thinking, “What a mundane observation.” Of course people from different cultures eat different foods. Yet this unremarkable fact flies in the face of the TPC postulate. There is much more to people’s food choices than just taste, price, and convenience. Rather, people’s relationship to food is mediated by deep cultural attachments, such as nostalgia for familiar childhood foods.
But can’t we just replace the meat in those dishes with identical cultivated meat or equally tasty meat made from plants? That depends on what it means to be identical or equal.
In a 2008 study, researchers gave participants two sausages. One was made from a pig, and one was from plants. Most people said they preferred the taste of the pig sausage. No surprises there, but plant-based meat has improved dramatically since 2008, right?
Not so fast. The twist of the study is that half of the participants were misinformed about which sausage was which. And the decisive factor determining which sausage people preferred was not what it was made of, but what people thought it was made of. The actual chemistry of the sausage didn’t matter. Most people preferred the taste of the sausage they thought was from a pig, regardless of whether it was. And who are we to argue? This is precisely the point: taste lives not in the physical form of the food we eat, but in our minds. The chemical reactions of food-on-tongue are only one factor. Consider that wine tastes better when you think it’s more expensive.
A Matter of Taste
So what factors besides chemistry might shape people’s perception that animal meat tastes better? This is an existential question for animal advocates. Without the right answer, we may never overcome public ambivalence about animal-free food. With the right answer, we may find an even more direct path to ending animal farming than we ever thought possible.
It turns out that cultural attachments have everything to do with people’s preference for “real” meat from animals. In Pax Fauna’s public opinion research4 with ordinary meat-eating Americans, culture has been one of the most consistent themes, as in these quotes:
- “I'm from the south, just about every person in my family, friends, they're hunters, they're fishermen. That's just part of our lifestyle here, our culture.” (Conservative woman, 53)
- “I remember my mom telling me that she grew up with her dad, basically he owned a little small farm. And so she's just used to being raised eating natural meats. And because of the way she grew up, that also influences us as a family as a whole. I feel like with alternatives… the recipes or traditions probably don't feel as good.” (Liberal woman, 22)
In fact, in the aforementioned study using sausages, while most people preferred the animal-based sausage (or so they thought), some preferred the sausage they thought was plant-based. And researchers noticed a pattern: the thing that predicted what sausage people would prefer was their cultural values. Cultural values affected people’s experience of the taste of each sausage more than chemistry.
Or consider the blowback against GMOs. Genetically modifying crops promised to make food less expensive and perhaps even more nutritious without changing the taste. Opposition to GMOs had nothing to do with taste, price, or convenience. The concerns were economic (small farmers’ control over their own crop supply) as well as naturalistic. Whatever your personal feelings about GMOs, this is a cautionary tale for animal-free foods. Anti-GMO campaigns successfully banned the practice in dozens of countries, and the same naturalistic values are central to many consumers’ attachment to meat from animals, at least according to our research participants:
- “Hunting animals and eating animals has been a part of our anthropology. While I do feel for the animals that are killed, I feel like hunting and eating meat are connected to us in a very primal way… it adheres to the natural order of things, to consume meat products.” (Moderate man, 24)
- “There's been a lot of talk about growing meat in a lab. I've heard that on the news. I don't think I would try that. That just sounds too foreign to me to grow meat in a lab. Sometimes I think all this, sometimes too much technology, humans are getting a little too big for their britches. And, you know, it's, it's not always a good thing. There's certain things we're not supposed to play around with, I think.” (Conservative woman, 53)
Without a doubt, taste, price, and convenience have also been common themes in our interviews. But if the participants are taken at face value, addressing these issues alone would fall short of overcoming people’s attachment to animal meat.
It’s Social Norms, Stupid
Besides taste, price, and convenience, people’s food choices are heavily shaped by deeper values connected to culture and naturalism. These values are less tangible than price and chemistry but they are no less real and may be even more important. As the story of GMOs shows, animal advocates cannot afford to ignore them.
Yet even culture and naturalism may represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the psychology of meat. Research points to an even bigger obstacle to changing eating habits. This problem has been articulated with brilliant simplicity by Dr. Melanie Joy: most people eat meat because… most people eat meat! That is, most individuals eat meat because everyone around them is doing it.
While culture and naturalism may be the frames through which people rationalize their continued meat consumption despite their ethical misgivings about killing animals for food, social reinforcement is the much more powerful force keeping this norm in place. Social norms influence our behavior in profound ways that we are often totally oblivious to. In study after study, people are able to see that social norms are influencing other people’s behavior but deny the effect on themselves. Yet in the case of meat-eating, we have found that these normative effects are so undeniably strong that a reasonable number of people are able to recognize them:
- “[My views on using animals for food are] somewhat negative, especially with the way animals are treated, like there's some guilt involved with me eating animals. But not extremely negative, just because so many people do it around me.” (Liberal woman, 24)
- “I know logically, if everyone individually stopped eating meat, there would not be the meat industry. Simultaneously, it is just impossible to escape that feeling of like, all my friends eat meat, right? Especially when you have 20 people that you hang out with, and they only eat meat.” (Progressive man, 21)
A recent study by Faunalytics reached similar conclusions about the main barriers to diet change. Researchers followed new vegetarians over a period of six months and asked about the top barriers people experienced to maintaining their new diet. They found that while cost and convenience (“Difficulty finding or preparing veg*n food”) were factors, “The worst barriers to diet change were feeling unhealthy, not seeing veg*nism as part of one’s identity, and believing society perceives veg*nism negatively.” In other words, social factors (and health). Of 14 barriers Faunalytics identified, 7 were different types of social and cultural influence, 2 were health-related, and taste, price, and convenience were each one.5
Finally, we can see the crux of the problem with the TPC postulate. People have deep ethical misgivings about killing animals for food, but they continue to eat meat. Taste, price, and convenience are part of the reason, but they only scratch the surface. Deeper values of culture and naturalness contribute to meat attachment, even shaping taste experiences. But social reinforcement may play the most significant role of all.
This, again, is not good news for animal advocates. It means that even if we can overcome one person’s counterarguments, it won’t matter; they’ll just go back to eating meat because everyone around them is doing it.
Instead, we must figure out how to engage at a higher level, rather than trying to reach consumers one at a time. We need a systems model for understanding the web of interactions and signals that create dominant norms in society, and a set of strategies for shattering the equilibrium around one of the world's most prevalent, entrenched social norms.
It sounds like a tall order.
Are you finally ready for some good news?
We have it. (Read part 2 now.)
- Many thanks to Jacob Peacock for some of the insights, terminology, and research used to discuss the TPC postulate in this post.
- It is difficult to quantify the extent of resources invested in the TPC theory of change. Data collected by James Ozden indicates major EA grantmakers directed only about 9% of their combined $84 million in animal funding in 2021 towards cultivated and plant based meats. However, I’m arguing that some of the much larger portion of funding ($50 million, or 60%) spent on corporate campaigns should be considered here, because one of the two major goals of these campaigns is increasing the cost of animal products. But all this is dwarfed by the nearly $5 billion dollars raised by alternative protein companies in 2021, according to GFI. It isn’t easy to compare philanthropic funding with venture capital, but if even 1% of those funds were motivated by altruistic desire to end animal farming, it would make alternative protein the largest category in animal movement expenditures.
- A quick disclaimer: I think highly of GFI. I’m confident their work is worth doing, and as far as I can tell they seem to be doing a great job with it. It could be that they are well aware that the TPC postulate is incomplete, but they’ve chosen to focus on those factors in their own work, and therefore it makes sense to focus their pitch to politicians on those factors. Or they really believe taste, price, and convenience matters the most, which might be just fine given the role they’re performing in the animal movement ecosystem. My intention here is not to say GFI should change anything about their work, it is just to make clear that we should not rely on their work alone to bring about the end of animal farming.
- A qualitative study involving over 100 hours of interviews with more than 200 meat-eating Americans. The report is forthcoming.
- Faunalytics found that social strategies were only modestly effective in helping people overcome these barriers. Still, as you will see, the approach I propose in this series of articles is far more sweeping than the ones they tested.
Great that you're working on this part of the ecology: cultural change, which sits alongside alternatives, personal change and political change in a mutually reinforcing way.
An opportunity that springs to mind is for the alternatives, eg alt-meat, to leverage this cultural dynamic to get those with similar values to those with plant based diets to be culturally influenced - I'm sure their marketing and advertising departments are onto this.
And yes, fundamentally we need a cultural change strategy, alongside strategic political milestones and strategy.
I have been enjoying reading your reports and blog posts since discovering this site today. There are several interesting underlying themes that seem apparent.
First, people like to eat animals, in fact they have deep cultural ties to doing so. Even though they may be uneasy at aspects of the industry, this seems to be separate from the tendency to see eating animals as somehow inherent in the human condition.
Second, it seems difficult to find the message that resonates with most people, though perhaps younger people today are more open to tackling such concrns.
And lastly, people seem open to ideas of justice for other species, at least on the surface. And yet paradoxically, most distrust and even dislike animal rights activists, vegans and veganism.
What do I conclude from all of this? Well... counter-intuitively I suspect trying to convince people to abandon eating animals is guaranteed to fail except at very small scale. It is simply too big a stretch for most. As well, veganism as an idea seems now so deeply tainted by its toxic cultural baggage that probably everyone who is ever likely to genuinely embrace ethical veganism already has done so. Given that the cultural imperative to eat animals is so deeply ingrained (and with good reason, if we think about what hundreds of thousands of years of hunter/gatherer cultural evolution means), veganism as popularly understood can go no futher. Without a fundamental reformation of this philosophy and movement, I cannot see any genuine progress.
I'm not well versed in the animal rights movement, but I think casting the problem of animal use and exploitation in the context of a rights or justice based concern with real-life consequences that depend on the individual's circumstances and motivations is where the future lies. I'd even go so far as to observe that such a strategy is likely to bear more fruit if a longer term view is taken.
For example, actually partnering with, or at least co-existing with such movements as reducetarianism, ethical omnivorism and regenerative farming provide much more fertile ground for an eventual progression of local cultural attitudes to animal farming and justice for the animals concerned. The current paradigm of actively attacking and judging people for doing wrong when they engage in practices deeply rooted in our cultural history and psyche seem far less likely to truly flower into anything useful.