Should vegans promote vegetarianism? Lessons in effective advocacy.

As vegans, our goal is to reduce the suffering of as many animals as we can and fight for complete animal liberation. To go about this momentous task, we each engage in various forms of activism. Be they small or big, in doing so we make a series of assumptions. We assume we know what factors lead to behavioral change. And we assume that ultimately, our efforts must succeed, as they come from a place of compassion, true care for animals, and cause we just work so dang hard! 

But why resort to uncertain assumptions, when scientific findings can help steer us toward more effective advocacy and in doing so help us reduce more animal suffering and achieve animal liberation faster? We may experience discomfort – by seemingly going against our mission and core beliefs – when we encourage non-vegans to give up eating one species of animals at a time, rather than going vegan overnight; but what if research told us this was the most effective strategy to helping someone become a lifelong vegan?

Nick Cooney, Co-Founder of the Good Food Institute, believes this to be true, and he makes a strong case supporting it.

In his informative talk, featured below, Nick argues, with passion, that we must lean on the scientific method, and the wealth of information on human psychology, to become stronger animal rights advocates and accelerate the global transition to veganism – for the sake of the animals.

Nick Cooney, IARC

Persuading Others

In one study, researchers sent out letters asking people to make donations to help individuals suffering from starvation in Africa. They sent out three letter versions. The first, included only statistics about starvation in Africa. The second, included only stories about individuals suffering the effects of starvation. And the third had both statistics and stories. Which do you think was most effective? If you’re anything like me, you guessed the third. Turns out, that by a landslide, it was the second. In fact, it generated twice as many donations.

Why is this? Stories stick with us. We remember them and they inspire us toward attitude and behavioral change.

What does this mean for us as animal activists? We need to tell more stories about individual animals suffering and fighting for their freedom, and stop expecting people to react to statistics alone.


Over 1000 studies have documented this powerful phenomena. In one study, researchers went door-to-door with big ugly ‘drive safely’ signs and asked homeowners to put them up in their front yards.

Only 17% of people agreed. The researchers tried again, but this time they made a smaller request; they asked homeowners to put a small sticker in their window, with a similar ‘drive safely’ message. Nearly everyone agreed, and when the researchers revisited those homeowners a few weeks later, now bearing the big ugly ‘drive safely’ signs, almost 70% agreed to plant them in their front yards.

Making a small request and then coming back for a larger one more than tripled the success of the campaign. What happened here? Agreeing to the original request changed the way these homeowners perceived themselves. “I put up that sticker in my window, so I am someone who cares about safe driving,” they thought to themselves. So when the researchers returned with the big ugly signs, in order to remain consistent with their newly affirmed identities, they felt compelled to agree to the larger request.

What does this mean for us as animal activists? Many of us have concerns about campaigns like Meatless Monday, or with the idea of congratulating or encouraging people who go vegetarian, since we fear that they’ll grow complacent and won’t go on to holding vegan beliefs. But foot-in-the-door research shows that people who make a small change are much more likely to make a larger one down the line. Supporting the application of this principle to animal advocacy, is research demonstrating that individuals who have reduced their meat consumption or first go vegetarian, are much more interested in going vegan than the general population.

Nick points to the body of research showing that the greatest amount of behavioral change occurs as a result of requesting a significant change that people can see themselves successfully implementing – as opposed to minuscule change or change so great people can’t visualize themselves enacting. The most effective request, then, is for people to go vegetarian or reduce their consumption of animals, as unlike going vegan, this is something most can envision themselves achieving. We may feel uncomfortable doing so, but considering foot-in-the-door research, we can expect these people to be much more open to the idea of veganism once they’ve taken this initial step.

Social Norms

As social creatures, we are astonishingly impacted by social norms. A powerful study demonstrated that out of a series of messages urging hotel guests to reuse their towels, the one that simply indicated “most guests reuse towels” was by far the most effective. In fact, it was 25% more effective than a message making an environmental plea! And when the message got even more specific – “most guests in hotel room 3F reuse their towels” – even more people complied!

What does this mean for us as animal activists? As much as we can, let’s add social norm components to our messages. Discuss celebrities, the growing number of vegans, vegetarians and meat reducers, and the growing availability of vegan items. The more mainstream it seems, the more people will view it as the ‘right’ and ethical thing to do, and the more they will change their behavior.


We are much more likely to respond to people who are similar to us. The more similar we are to the audience we’re speaking to, the more likely they are to listen to us and make the change we are asking for.

What does this mean for us as animal activists?  We need to adapt to our audience. It’s quite intuitive really, as Nick puts it, you’re going to want to dress and act differently if you’re speaking at a punk rock conference versus a room of politicians. After hearing us speak, whether one-to-one or through a speech, we want them to think “wow, that person is just like me but they don’t eat animals.” The more we can achieve this, the more likely they are to adopt the ethics, attitudes, and behavior we want them to hold.

Showing people ‘how’ not just ‘why’

As activists, we spend a lot of time discussing the ‘why’, and not enough time discussing the ‘how’, as we forget that while living vegan can be so easy for us, it can be very difficult for others.

A large meta-analysis found that the most important determinant of whether people succeed in making a change is not their desire to make it, but rather, whether or not they feel they know how to make it.

What does this mean for us as animal activists? Never forget to tell people how to go vegan. Tell them about resources like, (which will provide them with mentors and tips on living vegan), tell them where they can find vegan food, where they can get their protein, and address convenience and social issues (like where to find vegan food when out with families and friends).

Our own Psychology and Interactions

While we of course care for animals, our personal motivations can conflict with out effectiveness. Be sure to assess whether your personal desire to be perceived a certain way doesn’t interfere with your effectiveness as an animal advocate. We may feel compelled to shake someone by the shoulders and shout the truth at their faces, yet we should instead evaluate which strategy will do the most good. Like a company, the vegan movement has a bottom line: saving lives and reducing suffering. Rather than express what we know and want from others, start from the end goal of doing the most good and work backwards from there.

This ‘bottom line’ mentality, Nick argues, applies to the issues we choose to campaign on. If we know that far more lives can be spared by targeting people’s diets, rather than fur and vivisection, it is wise, he says, to focus our efforts on changing people’s eating habits.

Nick ends his talk by stating that within each of us is the potential to save 10s of thousands of animals from lives of misery. It is therefore our ethical imperative to use data and research to be as effective as we possibly can be.

Let us know in the comments what you think about Nick’s arguments, and if there’s anything you would add to or like to address about his vision of effective animal advocacy!


  • All references are directly from the talk given by Nick Cooney, linked above.

One thought on “Should vegans promote vegetarianism? Lessons in effective advocacy.

  1. Moira McAndrew

    Thank you! This reads well and makes sense. There are so many paths to becoming Vegan and so many ways to be Vegan. I love that my friends take my Vegan lifestyle into account when we eat together and this surely impacts them as they slowly discover Vegan menus.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s