Part 2 of It’s Social Norms, Stupid

This is the second in a series of three articles. In part one, I made the case that the farmed animal movement’s dominant theory of change is neglecting the role of social norms in shaping people’s attachment to meat, resulting in incomplete strategies. In this section, I introduce the science of social networks, which has cast new light on how changes in norms spread. In part three, I’ll build on this science to discuss how social movements can unleash the power of social networks to change norms at scale, particularly for the animal freedom movement.

The Gist

Gordian Knot

Amongst animal advocates, there is a lot of excitement about a theory of change we can call the Taste, Price, Convenience (TPC) postulate. This theory 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. But it is incomplete. In fact, taste, price, and convenience represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people’s food choices.

Consciously, people are motivated by strong cultural attachments to meat from animals, as well as values connected to naturalism. But the (often unconscious) influence of social reinforcement is even more important. Most people can’t imagine being the first one in their social group to change what they eat. As long as everyone else keeps eating animals, they will too. The most convincing arguments won’t matter. 

On the surface, this seems like an impossible puzzle. If everyone eats animals, and everyone eats animals because everyone else eats animals, how can we ever get anybody to stop eating animals? Where do we start?

Nodes and Connections

It turns out that a simple shift in perspective holds the key. When we think about influencing the behavior of individuals, we run into a roadblock: their relationships with other people are stopping them from changing. But social reinforcement doesn't have to be our foe. In fact, it can be a powerful tool. The reason lies in the young science of social networks.

When you think of society, do you mostly think of people? For social network researchers, society is made up not of people, but of relationships. (In network parlance, these are nodes and connections). From this perspective, the attributes of individual nodes are much less important than the connections between them, and the way those connections are arranged. 

On an individual level, humans are unique and full of quirks. But once we are arranged into a social network and norms take over, our individual traits stop having much effect on the behavior of the network. The larger and more complex the network gets, the more we start to look like legos: interchangeable. The behavior of the system is determined by how the blocks are connected to each other, much more than any traits of the blocks themselves.

Why It Matters

Once again, this may all seem a bit elementary. But the simple fact is that up to this point, the farmed animal movement has not been engaging with society according to this perspective. Efforts at influencing public behavior have focused on individuals, barely sparing a thought for the relationships between them. We have already established that the influence of relationships is one piece missing from the Taste, Price, Convenience postulate. Classic vegan outreach methods like leafleting share this flaw. Targeting individuals with information ignores the social forces that prevent them from changing their diet. This more than suffices to explain high recidivism rates among vegetarians and the inefficacy of leaflets.

Realizing this, many animal advocates have given up on winning over the public. Most of the organizations that used to focus on leafleting have redirected their attention to corporate welfare campaigns1 (not to mention their budgets: such campaigns now guzzle 60% of total farmed animal funding from Effective Altruism-aligned grantmakers). While these campaigns may be worthwhile, it’s hard for me not to interpret this as a white flag. We have surrendered the war over public opinion for the more tangible battleground of corporate boardrooms. 

The TPC postulate focuses on the single relationship between consumers and their food provider. It imagines that all the problems of animal-free meat adoption can be addressed there. That’s not how people work. We are social, and anything a tenth as fundamental and controversial as food is processed through our social selves. The price and chemistry of alternative meats may have an important role to play. But ultimately, the matter of animal freedom will be settled in the social arena.

I’m here to tell you that we don’t need to give up on social change for animals. In fact, the very social network science that explains why individual diet change advocacy was so ineffective offers a different and far more powerful solution.

The Myth of Virality

Social networks attracted the attention of researchers in the mid-20th century. Since the beginning, the principal metaphor used to describe how change spreads through these networks has been a virus. One person adopts a change, then introduces it to everyone they meet. Each connection presents an opportunity for the virus to spread. As long as each person spreads the change to more people (and sticks with it themselves) it’s only a matter of time before the change has spread throughout society.

For decades, this metaphor of viral spread was the accepted mechanism for social change. A social media post or hashtag, a new slang word or hand gesture for greeting, a diet or health philosophy, or a political idea would all spread like a virus through social connections. This theory led to three familiar ideas about how change happens, which in turn became common sense.

How Viruses Spread: The Old Model

That last one is less widely known, but in fact, it describes the thesis of the most-cited paper in the entire field of sociology. That paper is Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” published in 1970. Granovetter's study began with the observation that not all connections are equal. Our connection to our friends and families is not the same as our connection to the dentist we see twice a year. Strong ties are the core of our social network, people we see many times a week. Weak ties are our casual acquaintances, our outer circle. 

The key difference for Granovetter was that weak ties lack redundancy. Accordingly, information will spread faster through people who don’t know each other very well, because they’re much less likely to know the same people (compared to close friends, who are also close friends with each others’ close friends).

Distinguishing strong ties and weak ties was a brilliant insight. It propelled Granovetter to fame and helped establish the field of network science. Yet as it turns out, that distinction contained a seed that would grow to turn this entire paradigm on its head. 

Dentists Don’t Spread Veganism

In the last couple decades, a new wave of research has radically overturned the understanding of social change that reigned when Granovetter published “The Strength of Weak Ties”. Social media and other digital technologies have enabled scientists to look inside these networks for the first time. One such scientist, Damon Centola, surveys this new era of research and its importance for changemakers in his recent book Change. Without hesitation, I would call this one of the two most important books published on social change in the last decade. (The other being Mark and Paul Engler’s This Is an Uprising, which I’ll discuss in part 3 of this series.) The rest of this post represents my best effort to summarize the relevance of this research to animal advocates in a few hundred words. That said, I implore any serious strategist to download and start reading Change immediately.

Like Granovetter, Centola’s work rests on a crucial distinction: simple contagions vs. complex contagions. It turns out that simple changes do indeed spread through social networks like a virus. If, for instance, you want to spread information about a breaking news event, the strategies above are effective. Highly connected influencers and other weak ties help information spread fast across different social groups. The defining quality of a simple contagion is that it doesn’t encounter resistance to its spread through the network. One or two exposures to the contagion is enough not only to change someone, but to make them a spreader. If you have a literal virus and you stay at home, it will just bounce around among your family or housemates until everyone is immune. But if you bring it to your dentist, she might spread it to dozens of other households before she has any idea she’s sick.

But the viral model breaks down with complex contagions. Spreading a behavior change is fundamentally different from spreading information or a virus. Changing one’s behavior comes at a cost: time, attention, and most importantly, social belonging. Most people won’t bear the cost of a behavior change just because their dentist is doing it. (Be honest, how often have you really been flossing lately2?) The higher the cost, the more resistance the contagion will encounter. And the more resistance a change encounters, the more it must rely on a set of strategies that are almost exactly the opposite of the old paradigm described above.

The Snowball Strategy

Although this new model for changing social norms is a major departure from the influencer model, in its own way, it is also fairly intuitive. The starting principle is that the basis of a social norm is that most people are doing it. The bulk number of people doesn’t matter as much as the percentage of people who have adopted the behavior. And from the perspective of any individual in the network, that means the percentage of people they are connected with who have adopted it.

Let’s consider the network diagram above. Imagine it represents all the people who attend services at a neighborhood church. The core of the community is made up of people who regularly attend service and are involved in other programs the church puts on. These core individuals are highly interconnected and have strong ties with many other people in the community. At the very center of the network would be the pastor, who has strong ties with everyone in the core and many in the periphery.

If you wanted to spread a behavior change through this church community, where would you start? By now, you understand that it depends on what kind of change you want to spread, and how much resistance you expect. If resistance will be low, the logical place to start would be with the pastor. 

Imagine the pastor sometimes has a hard time getting everyone to quiet down when she needs to make an announcement. Your idea is that when everyone is talking and one person raises their hand, everyone who sees them raises their hand and goes quiet, until the whole group has gotten quiet enough to hear an announcement. If you get the pastor on board, she can announce this new method at a few Sunday services. Soon, everyone will be notified of the change and it will become the new norm.

Reforming the Church

But what if you’re spreading a complex contagion? What if you want this church community to embrace the farmed animal movement, or even establish a norm of getting arrested protesting violence against animals? Even in a very liberal church, this will be no easy task. You’re expecting a lot of resistance.

Should you start with the pastor? It may be a moot point; she’s very unlikely to start advocating this from the pulpit if it’s significantly outside the social norms of the church. Like any community leader, part of her job is to reflect the values of the community. If she strays too far away from that, people will start to leave, or she’ll get fired. In fact, even if she did start calling for the community to change their values and norms to include civil disobedience for animals, it would likely just demonstrate the limits of her leadership position. People might ignore her. 

When it comes to social norms, trusted influencers might have a bit more sway than the average community member. But this is more than counterbalanced by their highly connected position in the network. When it came to simple contagions, this high connectivity was an asset. But for spreading complex contagions, it becomes a weakness. Even if the pastor adopts the change, she’ll be surrounded by people who haven’t, and all those people will be surrounded by people who haven’t. All those other people represent countervailing influences: resistance to the new norm, in the form of reminders that the old familiar norm is still going strong. The pastor only makes up a small percentage of each person’s social network in the church. Despite her respected position, the pastor alone cannot declare a new social norm of such magnitude in this highly interconnected community. If she tries to, she’ll just invite a rebellion. 

Power Lies on the Periphery

When it comes to spreading changes that face resistance, the potential for change lies on the network’s periphery. Looking at the diagram above, these are the green nodes that each have three or fewer connections. These people sporadically attend service and only have a few social connections in the church. The magic of the periphery is that change initiatives that begin here have a chance to build momentum before running up against the full force of the entrenched social norm and the countervailing influence of the highly interconnected network core. 

Let’s say you have a finite amount of energy you’re able to invest in getting this church on board with animal freedom. You could spend all that energy trying to persuade the pastor. Even if you can convince her to take a big social risk, it may not even matter; she’s only one person.

Instead, you could identify someone on the periphery of the community. You find Sally, a hip 20-something who is already sympathetic to the movement. Sally has a small friend group of four. If you can help Sally convince one of her friends to get involved, suddenly, half of their friend group is on board with your campaign. Already, you can see how the dynamics here on the periphery are quite different than at the network core. For the other two members of this friend group, doing civil disobedience for animals will quickly become something they associate with their social life in the church; half of their friends are doing it. The power of social norms means they’ll be easier to convert, especially if Sally and her friend keep reminding them about it.

By now you can see why Centola calls this the Snowball Strategy. Looking at the diagram again, we can imagine the new change creeping across the network periphery, then encroaching on the core. Once 10 or 15% have converted to the new norm, its momentum is palpable and impossible to ignore. Now, if the pastor gets on board, she’ll have the backing of an organic movement. The tipping point is within reach.

Spreading Complex Contagions

Over the last two decades, social network scientists have found more and more evidence that complex social contagions spread most effectively through strong ties on the network periphery. This is just the opposite of simple contagions, which spread rapidly through influencers and weak ties. (Centola effectively surveys much of this evidence in Change, with a lengthy appendix on further reading.) This research has been made possible by social media platforms and other digital technologies. These recreate the dynamics of social networks while enabling interactions and connections to be recorded and measured. Taken together, this body of research arms social change strategists with a new playbook, an uncanny inversion of the strategies listed earlier for viral spread.

Overcoming Resistance to Change: The New Model

Norms, Networks, and…

Around this point, you might be thinking, “OK Aidan, I can see how this all could be applied to a church. But how can we apply this to a whole society? It all seems a bit abstract.” Well, that’s a great question. I wish I’d thought of it myself! Because it leads us directly to what I personally find to be the most exciting thing about all of this. Centola’s work on social networks provides the most compelling answer I’ve seen yet to a question that has confounded sociologists for decades: Why do social movements (and protest movements in particular) seem to be such an effective strategy for changing social norms? And perhaps more importantly, how can we design social movements that are most likely to succeed in doing so?

The next (and last) article in this series tackles precisely those questions.

In the meantime, here are some even simpler ways animal advocates and organizations could incorporate social networks into their current strategies:

  1. To the extent that these campaigns (and protest activity more generally) have a goal of influencing the public, they represent a shotgun approach, reaching individuals at random without any attention to social clusters or a systematic plan for altering the public’s views (that I am aware of).
  2. I’ve actually been flossing regularly for the first time in my life, but it had nothing to do with my dentist: two of my housemates floss twice a day, often in common areas. This is a perfect demonstration of the power of strong ties!

On to part 3!

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.

The Gist

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:

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:

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:

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 

Most of the challenges faced by new vegans and vegetarians in a study by Faunalytics had to do with social and cultural influence. (original graph from this data)

Shattering Equilibrium

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.

Taste, Price, and Convenience are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people’s decision to eat animal meat.

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.)

  1. Many thanks to Jacob Peacock for some of the insights, terminology, and research used to discuss the TPC postulate in this post.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. A qualitative study involving over 100 hours of interviews with more than 200 meat-eating Americans. The report is forthcoming.
  5. 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.

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