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Book Summary

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard


As you know, Vegan Outreach is dedicated to creating as much real change as possible; to that end, we study widely (marketing, psychology, sociology, etc.). A new book useful for people seeking to improve their activism is Switch. For those not in a position to read the whole thing (it is a quick and anecdote-filled read), we’ll try to hit on the key points as applicable to Vegan Outreach / animal advocacy.

The Heaths start with the analogy set out in The Happiness Hypothesis (by Jonathan Haidt):

Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.

In short, the Heaths’ hypothesis is: to bring about change, we have to: Direct the Rider; Motivate the Elephant; Shape the Path. There are three subsections under each of these steps.


A. Direct the Rider

1. Follow the Bright Spots. As the Heaths say: “Investigate what’s working and clone it.” That is, instead of starting from scratch, find out what’s working / points of common ground. In our case, don’t assume an adversarial (or teaching) position. Rather, find common areas from which to build. Nearly everyone opposes cruelty to animals (and those that say they don’t often do, once you get past the posturing) – this is an incredibly powerful bright spot! Do they / have they had a companion animal? Do they “not eat much meat”? Do they like Boca burgers, or know a vegetarian? Do they have some similar background with you?

Mikael Nielsen

You can even take what appears to be a negative and use it as a hook, as Vegan Outreach does with the title of our booklet, Even If You Like Meat.

As Mikael Nielsen wrote:
While leafleting, “one woman stopped and said she loved meat. I told her I did too, but that when I examined my morals and values they did not match up with my actions and therefore I stopped. I also suggested that she give up meat on Mon/Wed/Fri and see how that went. She seemed like she would totally give it a try.” (Keep this in mind for below.)


Phil Letten

2. Script the Critical Moves. “Don’t think big picture, think in terms of specific behavior.” In other words, don’t say, “Go vegan!” – no one changes from such an exhortation (see “shrink the change” below). Rather, give people specific steps they can take to start on the path of change – not eating chicken and pigs, avoid all food from factory farms, not eating meat several days a week, etc.

Phil Letten:
After talking to two guys while leafleting, “They both still seemed a little unwilling to never eat meat again. I mentioned that even cutting down on meat lessens a lot of suffering. One got excited and said, ‘I can do that!” They both walked away intently reading the leaflets.’”


Nikki Benoit

3. Point to the Destination. “Change is easier when you know where you’re going and why it’s worth it.” Again, don’t talk in terms of big picture abstractions (“liberation,” “sustainability,” “environment”). Rather, stick to what speaks directly to the individual.

Nikki Benoit:
“A professor invited me to address his 70+ student class. I gave a quick introduction, and said, ‘Listen, even if you just cut animals out of three dinners per week, that would be a huge help for our animal friends. If you read this, please pass it on…the more people know, the quicker this insanity ends.’ I then asked who wanted to read a booklet. Not hearing a peep in the room, I stepped off the stage, looked up, and half their arms were raised!”


B. Motivate the Elephant

1. Find the Feeling. “Knowing something isn’t enough to cause change. Make people feel something.” Many vegans think a purely / philosophical / statistics-filled intellectual argument should be enough to cause people to change. But the Heaths point out this is absolutely not the case – the Rider has very little real control over the Elephant.

This is obviously the key to Vegan Outreach’s approach – show people the hidden cruelty to animals. What people feel has to be a powerful enough feeling to overcome inertia, habits, etc.

Eileen Botti

Eileen Botti summarized the comments from one leafleting outing:
“Oh man, this is the packet that made me vegetarian!”
“Aw, this is the booklet that made me go vegetarian last year!”
“I went vegetarian from this!”
“I like meat but this is just so horrible!”

“I feel so good helping animals, and have helped some of my friends go vegan. Thanks for inspiring me!”


2. Shrink the Change. “Break down the change until it no longer spooks the Elephant.”
This is the key lesson from the book!


Of course, it goes without saying that we want everyone to be vegan. We want this because we don’t want any animals to suffer for “food.” The key here isn’t the “vegan” abstraction, but the animals' suffering! The way to address this is not to trumpet veganism, but to get more and more people to eat fewer and fewer animals.

“While I appreciate [another group’s] goals, their all-or-nothing tone always left me feeling guilty and discouraged. Vegan Outreach is the first vegan advocacy and information site that I’ve seen that makes me feel good about my recent decision to drop meat and fowl and explore new foods and cooking methods. Kudos for making a convincing case for veganism without making people feel selfish and evil if they don’t get to 100% immediately!”


3. Grow Your People. “Cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset.” In this chapter, they talk about how to capture people’s pre-existing inclinations (find the bright spot – opposition to cruelty to animals), and get them to start thinking that change really is possible. The way to make the possibility of change real is by getting them to make a small change – then they think of themselves as someone who can change, not someone limited by habit, peer pressure, etc.

Jon Camp

Jon Camp:
“Last night, Hoss Firooznia was talking about how creating change isn’t always as simple as giving people facts. People have a tough time admitting their previous way of living was wrong. That is what I have always liked about the Vegan Outreach approach – it allows people the opportunity to make changes while still being able to save face. And then the changes lead to more changes; soon the originally held positions have also changed. It’s actually quite subversive.

“I saw the results of this approach today at Rochester Institute of Technology. One young woman came up to tell me that three years ago, she received an Even If You Like Meat on campus. She liked the idea of “you don’t have to be perfect” and immediately cut her meat consumption to basically nothing. She told me that since receiving the booklet, she has consumed meat three times – an average of once per year. The ‘not all or nothing’ proposition sold her and continues to keep her on board.

“Also, a faculty member told me a story about her coworker – she once got an Even If You Like Meat and tacked it to her bulletin board for whatever reason; she continued to look at it, to make changes, and is now vegetarian.”


Theo Summer Aaron Ross

C. Shape the Path

1. Tweak the Environment. “When the situation changes, the behavior changes.” Vegan Outreach can’t directly alter people’s environment, but we do take advantage of when people change their environment by going away to school.

Theo Summer:
“At Santa Clara University, a student mentioned that the booklets had been brought up in one of his classes, and for the most part the students agreed with what was said inside.”

Aaron Ross:
“These booklets are becoming recognizable on campuses everywhere. Several students today knew exactly what it was before I handed it to them, and so many said that it is what prompted them to try vegetarian/ vegan.”


2. Build Habits. “When behavior is habitual, it’s ‘free’ – it doesn’t tax the Rider.” Unless you can move everyone into a vegan household, it isn’t going to be easy to build new habits. But combine this with “Shrink the Change” and you’ll see the opportunity: modify current habits slightly such that people can stay close to their current routine but still make a difference.

In other words – don’t expect people to stop eating fast food and making what is convenient, and switching over to diet of a slow-cooked whole-food organic local fat-free quinoa, amaranth, and bok choy, topped with nutritional yeast “cheese” and sprinkled with chia seeds. Rather, promote a diet that fits in with their current habits – quick microwaved Boca burgers and Amy’s dinners, bean burritos, Tofurky slices sandwiches, Field Roast sausages, etc.


3. Rally the Herd. “Behavior is contagious. Help it spread.” Being a, positive, confident, attractive vegetarian example in public shows people it can be done, allows those interested to ask questions, and gives support to other vegetarians.

Vic Sjodin Yvonne LeGrice

Nikki Benoit:
“Leafleting at the beach was great today! Four teenage girls eagerly received their booklets:
Girl #1: ‘Ugh, I can’t look at these pictures!’
Girl #2 (to me): ‘Are you vegetarian?’
Me: ‘Yes.’
Girl #4: ‘What do you eat?’
Me (while giving them Guides): ‘Everything other than our animal friends – easiest thing I’ve ever done!’
Girl #1: ‘That’s it! Let’s do it! I can’t look at these pictures…I need to go vegetarian. Seriously, let’s do it! Now! Done.’
Girls #2–4: ‘Okay; Okay; Done!’”

Vic Sjodin:
“One girl at William Paterson today said she had been wanting to go veg, so she got a Guide. Another two girls who are roommates said they would go veg for a week, so they got a Guide and encouragement.”

Yvonne LeGrice:
“A couple of girls who walked by said, ‘Hey, I’ll become a vegetarian, if you do.’ ‘Yeah, let’s!’ One girl ran to her group and shouted, ‘Guess what? I’m going to become a vegetarian!’”

B2 (Shrink the Change) and C (Shape the Path) indicate that the easier change is (i.e., the more vegetarians around and the more familiar vegetarian options are available), the easier it is for people to start on down the road of change. It also suggests that a campaign to get more cruelty-free options available on college campuses (and providing local information and social support) could have very significant payoff.


Some Favorite Quotes from the Book


The Elephant [is] looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin). When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs.

To make progress toward a goal … requires the energy and drive of the Elephant.

Self-control is an exhaustible resource. The bigger the change you’re suggesting, the more it will sap people’s self-control.


A1. Follow the Bright Spots
Knowledge does not change behavior.

Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.


A2. Script the Critical Moves
The status quo feels comfortable and steady because much of the choice has been squeezed out.


A3. Point to the Destination
Our first instinct, in most change situations, is to offer up data to people’s Riders. The Rider loves this. He’ll start poring over the data, analyzing it and poking holes in it … [will] debate with you…. You have a choice about how to use the Rider’s energy: By default, he’ll obsess about … whether it’s necessary to move at all. But you can redirect that energy … toward the destination.

A big picture goal like “Be healthier” is necessarily imprecise, and that ambiguity creates wiggle room for the Elephant. It makes it easy to rationalize failure.


B1. Find the Feeling
In almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

When people fail to change, it’s not usually because of an understanding problem. Smokers understand that cigarettes are unhealthy, but they don’t quit.

There’s a difference between knowing how to act and being motivated to act. … We speak to the Rider when we should be speaking to the Elephant.


B2. Shrink the Change
Rather than focusing on solely on what’s new and different about the change to come, make an efforts to remind people what’s already been conquered.

A business cliché commands us to “raise the bar.” But that’s exactly wrong … You need to lower the bar.


Motivation is more important than math.

When you engineer early successes, what you’re really doing is engineering hope. Hope is precious to a change effort. It’s Elephant fuel.

When you set small, visible goals, and people achieve them, they start to get it into their heads that they can succeed.

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur…. Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.

The challenge is to get the Elephant moving, even if the movement is slow at first.


B3. Grow Your People
Their little yes [change] seemed to pave the way for the big-yes.

[After making the small change and being approached about a bigger change], they subconsciously asked themselves James March’s three identity questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?

People are receptive to developing new identities [and] identities “grow” from small beginnings.

Any new quest, even one that is ultimately successful, is going to involve failure. … You know that you or your audience will fail, and you know that the failure will trigger the “flight” instinct. … You need to create the expectation of failure – not the failure of the mission itself, but failure en route.

Real change, the kind that sticks, is often three steps forward and two steps back.

People will persevere only if they perceive falling down as learning rather than failing.


C1. Tweak the Environment
The “Fundamental Attribution Error” [is] our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.


C2. Build Habits
Our habits are essentially stitched into our environment. According to one study of people making changes in their lives, 36 percent of the successful changes were associated with a move to a new location, and only 13 percent of unsuccessful chances involved a move.

Not a quote: A general discussion of “action triggers” that create “instant habits.” E.g., Meatless Mondays; eating vegetarian MWF; etc.


Keep the Switch Going
Recognize and celebrate the first step.

Reinforcement is the secret to getting past the first step of your long journey and on to the second, third, and hundredth steps. And that’s a problem, because … we are quicker to grouse than to praise.

Change isn’t an event; it’s a process.

The more you’re exposed to something, the more you like it.

People don’t like to act in one way and think in another. So once a small step has been taken, and people have begun to act in a new way, it will be increasingly difficult for them to dislike the way they’re acting. Similarly, as people begin to act differently, they’ll start to think of themselves differently, and as their identity evolves, it will reinforce the new way of doing things.

Big changes can start with very small steps. Small changes tend to snowball.