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Interview with Nick Cooney

Change of Heart

For one week on VO’s blog, I interviewed Nick Cooney, head of The Humane League and author of Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change.

Nick is a long-time activist with a wide-ranging background. You can read the 2007 profile he did for VO, and his post on psychology and booklet titles.

It has been a pleasure to work with Nick over the years. I hope you find the interview useful.

There are thousands and thousands of vegan and advocacy books out there. What made you decide it was worth your time to write Change of Heart?

Nick Cooney

You’re right, there are a number of books that have been written on how to organize to create change for animals (or social change in general). And while a few of these books are very helpful, one thing that was always missing was any sort of hard science about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to persuading others. Animal advocates often find themselves in disagreement with one another over what messages and approaches are most effective. For example, should we use graphic imagery of animal suffering or should we use images of cute, happy animals? Should we encourage people to make small changes and progress to larger changes, or should we encourage them to make large changes (such as veganism) from the start? And what types of messages are most convincing in getting the public to go veg?

Ask ten animal activists these questions and you’ll get some very different answers, with each person having arguments and anecdotes to support their point of view. What I wanted to do with Change of Heart is to cut through all these personal opinions and find out what the scientific record shows. Researchers in the fields of psychology, sociology, communication studies, and a few other areas have conducted tens of thousands of studies on what does and does not help in persuading others to do what we’d like them to do. By taking their results and applying them to our animal advocacy work, we can become a lot more effective and save many more lives. Change of Heart is meant to be a psychology primer for activists, a road map of how people’s minds operate and what we need to do to persuade them to live more compassionately.

In your book, especially the first portion, you speak extensively (and convincingly) against the attitude of “do something, do anything!” From your knowledge of psychology and sociology, why do you think this is such a common (and often intractable) problem, especially within the animal advocacy community?

Great question. A lot of animal advocates do feel that as long as they are doing something, anything to help animals, they can feel good about themselves and can rest assured that they are doing the right thing. I certainly felt the same way for the first couple years of my time as an animal advocate: what’s important was that I was standing up for animals, adding my voice to those who were condemning circuses, fur, animal testing and so forth. What’s important was that I was on the right side.

But creating social change is not that easy. Really doing good is not that easy. As an analogy, think about a parent raising his or her first child. Would they be a “good parent” if they just stood by the child’s crib holding a sign for an hour each week telling the child that they loved it? Of course not. To be a good parent, they need to take the time to read books on child nutrition and child psychology, and learn all the details and complexities of how to raise a happy, healthy child. Most of us, placed in the role of parent, would be willing to put that time and effort in.

We need to be just as thoughtful about our work to create change for animals. In other words, we need to be focused on results. We need to realize that the important thing is not how much we say we love the child, it’s how the child turns out. The important thing with animal advocacy is not that we’re on the right side, or that we’re doing “something” to help animals, the important thing is what actual results we’ve had for animals. How many animals have been spared a lifetime of suffering as a result of our own personal work over the past few months? How many have been saved from death? And, is there a way that we could be helping numerically more animals?

The problem with slogans like “do something, do anything,” “practice random acts of kindness,” etc., is that they are completely focused on how we feel, and they completely ignore what’s happening in the world around us. If we’re living out the phrase “do something, do anything,” we’re letting ourselves be steered by our self-centered desires to feel good about ourselves. It’s profoundly disrespectful to those who are suffering right now. To a pig confined in a filthy gestation crate, it doesn’t make a difference in her life whether or not you “do something, do anything.” It only makes a difference in her life if you create an actual change – by getting someone to stop eating meat, getting a company to do away with gestation crates, etc. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “The revolution is not a question of virtue, but of effectiveness.”

Bottom line: if we’re really concerned with helping animals (and I think all of us reading this are), let’s redouble our efforts to stay focused on RESULTS, and doing the work that will create the most real-world results for animals.

I, too, spent a number of years in the “do something, do anything” mindset. Another shortcoming of mine in previous years was my insistence in promoting a “vegan first, vegan only” message, with the rationalization being that only veganism was the full statement against all exploitation.

In retrospect, though, I was more concerned with promoting my personal views, rather than doing the most good for the animals. Or in terms of Jack Norris’ comment, “We want a vegan world, not a vegan club,” I wanted an exclusive vegan club of only those fully committed and indoctrinated.

You cover the implications of this attitude in terms of booklet titles here, as well as ways the relevant research indicates we can be more effective. Can you discuss other areas where people’s personal dogma and sense of identity / self-worth get in the way of doing the most good for the animals, as well as how we can use the available research to get past our personal beliefs and desires?

We might think that the only reason we are animal advocates is because we altruistically want to help animals, but that’s not true. Our motivation is probably in part a desire to express ourselves; a desire to feel a sense of belonging (by working with or talking to like-minded people); and a desire to feel good about ourselves. All of these things are an important part of being a happy, healthy person. But there are times when they can conflict with doing the most good for animals.

Take self-expression, for example. Just expressing our opinions – be it in a letter to a congressperson, shouting at a protest, typing on a blog, or by passing out a booklet – doesn’t in and of itself magically create change for animals. Some methods do create real-world change, some methods do very little. So we have to ask ourselves, is our goal to just voice our opinion in the way we find most enjoyable? Or is it to create the most real-world change?

Our desire to express ourselves can also affect the physical appearance and style of dress we choose. There is plenty of research documenting how our appearance impacts our persuasiveness. Studies have found for example that people who look attractive (by conventional standards of beauty) are paid more, more likely to be elected to political office than less-attractive candidates, get off with lighter sentences in court, are more likely to get petition signatures when petitioning, are more likely to receive help when they ask for it, etc. Studies have also found that people are more likely to help, believe, and work with those who look similar to them. Therefore if we dress and look like our target audience, and try to appear more conventionally attractive, we’ll be more effective in our animal advocacy work. Here again we see a conflict: do I as an advocate for animals dress and look the way I want to because I enjoy that form of self-expression; or do I dress and look in the way that’s going to help the most animals? Boil it down and you’re really asking yourself, “Is being able to look the way I prefer to look worth the lives of thousands of animals?”

Let me also address the desire to feel good about ourselves. As you note, rigid adherence to vegan dogma and a desire for personal purity will interfere with our ability to create actual change for animals. There are a small number of animal advocates who are opposed to any form of advocacy that doesn’t have what they consider to be a strict vegan message. These folks think, for example that using the term “vegetarian” in outreach materials is bad, that welfare laws protecting millions of animals are bad, that encouraging people to reduce meat consumption is bad, etc.

“Veganism,” they argue, “has to be the moral baseline. If we advocate for anything less, the public will become complacent and they’ll think it’s okay to continue eating animal products as long as they eat less, or eat free-range.”

This is a hollow argument on a number of levels. For one thing, it doesn’t even stand up to its own internal logic. Consider the fact that 120 million animals are killed by our cars each year, 40 million by our cell phone towers, and at bare minimum 60 million die a slow death of pesticide poisoning from our non-organic food crops (these numbers are for the US). Moreover, billions of animals won’t get to even be born because of our population growth and our consumerism which poisons the environment. Someone on the next rung up the purity ladder could say, “Veganism, not driving, not using a cell phone, eating only organic food, not reproducing, and buying virtually nothing has to be the moral baseline. If we advocate anything less – such as just veganism – the public will become complacent and they’ll think it’s okay to continue killing animals and denying their ability to live just so as long as they aren’t eating animal products.”

Leaving that internal contradiction aside, psychology and sociology research from the past fifty years makes clear that having flexibility in our advocacy – as opposed to taking a “vegan or nothing” approach – will make us more effective. For example, the research is very clear that if we want people to make a large change, we’ll usually be more successful by first getting them to agree to a smaller change and then later encouraging them to make the larger change. This is called getting our “foot in the door,” and a meta-analysis of over 900 studies found that by getting our foot in the door first with a smaller request, we’ll be overall about 15% more effective at getting people to agree to our larger goal, such as going vegan.

Communication researchers have also widely studied what they call “message discrepancy,” which is how different a speaker’s message is from the audience’s current belief. Researchers are interested in finding out which message will create the most attitude and behavior change in an audience: a message that is only slightly different than the audience’s current belief, a message that is moderately different than their current belief, or a message that is extremely different than their current belief. In a nutshell, it is the moderately different messages that researchers have found create the most attitude and behavior change. Suggestions like “have a meatless meal once a week” might be too minimal, and encouragements like “you should go vegan” are too different from what the general public currently does to create a lot of behavior change. A message somewhere in the middle of these should be more effective, create more change in people’s diets, and thereby help more farmed animals.

Lastly, research on minority influence has found that those holding a minority opinion are less effective in persuading the public to agree with them if they hold a completely rigid viewpoint. Having some flexibility, and occasionally agreeing with the majority, makes those with a minority opinion more successful in spreading their belief. As we vegans are greatly in the minority, this lesson certainly applies to us and our work.

So again, and in summary, we face that question: is our goal as animal advocates to express ourselves as accurately as possible, and to feel good about our purity of message? Or is our goal to change the public’s behavior as much as possible, and consequently help as many animals as possible? The research record makes clear that in general we can’t have both.

Given everything you’ve learned in your research, how has your activism changed? What tools have you found most effective at persuading people to change their views and habits?

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned from my research is to never assume I know what type of message is going to work best in getting people to make a change (like going vegetarian or vegan). People – including all of us animal advocates – think and behave in a lot of really illogical ways. Writing Change of Heart helped me see some of the patterns, which has already come in handy in making The Humane League’s outreach work more effective.

The most important thing an animal advocate can do to be as effective as possible is to find the issues and approaches where they can create the most change for animals for the smallest amount of time and money invested. Getting to that point means working through some of the internal psychological barriers we’ve talked about already. It also means paying attention to what a variety of groups and individual activists are doing, and considering the number of animals that each person and each group’s work is helping. Overall, I think one of the most effective things we can be doing is getting both information and – very importantly – resources on how to make a change into people’s hands, on their computer screens, and so forth. I think that VO’s booklets; vegetarian starter kits; and videos like MFA’s new Farm to Fridge are some of the most powerful tools we animal advocates have for changing individual behavior.

That being said, it’s important that in these types of materials and in talking with people we use the messages that will most effectively persuade people to make a change. That’s where Change of Heart comes in. The tools I talk about in the book can make us 10, 20, maybe 30% more effective in the work that we’re doing (which will mean many lives spared). To give an example, social norms messages – where we essentially say “most people/lots of people are doing this, so you should too” – are extremely powerful. Research has found that in many cases they are more powerful than direct advocacy messages (such as “please recycle to protect the environment,” etc.). For your summer outreach at the Warped Tour, Vegan Outreach now prints special booklets that feature popular vegetarian musicians on the front and back cover. As far as I understand, using this social norms message on the cover – as opposed to leading off with a “protect animals from cruelty message” – has resulted in a lot more Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating requests and likely many more vegetarians created. THL is also in the process (and admittedly we’re late to the game on this) of getting Facebook like buttons on our vegetarian resource websites, both to help spread the word and also to use the power of social norms to help spread vegetarianism on Facebook (“Oh look, Betty just ordered a vegetarian starter kit. I guess vegetarianism is becoming more popular, maybe I should get one too.”).

Getting commitments from people is another very powerful tool. I saw Rory Freedman (coauthor of Skinny Bitch) speak once and at the end she asked any non-veg members of the audience to make a “pinkie pledge” then and there to try going veg or vegan for a month. On the surface that may seem kind of silly, but in fact there’s a ton of research that makes clear that getting these sort of commitments – be they verbal, written, public, or group commitments – makes people much more likely to follow through on a behavior change. So I’m trying to find ways to work that into my outreach work more. One example is that we’re working with an app developer (Symbiotic Software – check out their animal advocacy apps already on the market, all free) to create a vegetarian starter kit app, and the first thing it will do is encourage the user to make some type of pledge for how often they will try eating veg.

One last example for now: HSUS and Farm Sanctuary (along with other groups) just launched their ballot initiative to ban battery cages, veal crates and gestation crates in Washington State. With previous ballot initiatives their campaign sites included a “Fact vs. Myth” page to counter industry group talking points about why a ban on these practices would be bad. However research suggests that these types of presentations often lead the public to incorrectly remember a number of the false statements as true. So with this current initiative, they’ve switched over to a FAQ page ( that simply gives the facts and chooses not to repeat the myths, even to dispel them. A switch like this certainly isn’t going to make or break their ballot initiative, but this very simple switch in approach should make more Washingtonians better informed about the facts of the issue.

Imagine a relatively perfect world, where all animal advocates and vegans have read your book and adopted your views. Under this best-case scenario, how do you see society evolving over time? IOW, what is your optimistic view of the future?

It’s really hard to say. I do think that if all animal advocates and vegans put the research discussed in Change of Heart into action, we as a movement would gain ground much more quickly. I think we’d all be focusing on the issues where we can do the most good (primarily farm animal issues), and methodically making small but important improvements in our tactics, messaging, and general approach. I do think that the percentage of vegans, vegetarians and semi-vegetarians is going to continue rising for a while; I do think that we will see bans on the worst factory farming practices; and I do think we’ll see strengthening of all types of welfare laws and increased general social concern for protecting animals. I also think some fringe uses of animals will be banned or phased out over time (like animals in circuses), and that eventually technological advances will lead to a sharp reduction in animal testing and (when in vitro meat works out) meat consumption. I think the research in Change of Heart can help speed up some of these processes and save more animals more quickly.

Nick Cooney

That being said, I’m not particularly optimistic that human beings are going to voluntarily change their lifestyles enough to prevent serious environmental breakdown and the harm that will cause and is already causing, at least in the short term, for animals (particularly wild ones). Ultimately it’s not just our diet but our whole consumption-heavy way of living and our industrialized society that hurts animals. Billions of animals suffer and die in factory farms each year, but many also die from other human activities and billions more will not be able to be born because we’ve taken over and decimated so much of the land. So I’m optimistic that change will happen for the animals in terms of our use of them for food, clothing and so forth, but not very optimistic about the situation for animals from the wider perspective of industrial civilization as a whole.

But that’s a somewhat separate issue. None of us can predict the future, and even if some catastrophic climate change happens down the line, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the suffering going on right now, suffering that we can prevent. So that being said, let’s get leafleting!