The plant-based community is awash with opinions about how to approach vegan advocacy — some think shock-and-awe is the answer, while others prefer a lead-by-example attitude. Too often, however, dedicated activists (all of whom are on the same side) end up fighting amongst themselves about tactics.

But what does the psychological research say about winning hearts and minds? To answer that question, we spoke to Dr. Gordon Hodson, a researcher and professor at Brock University.

Dr. Hodson writes for Psychology Today, and his research interests include stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, with a focus on ideology, emotions (disgust, empathy), intergroup contact/friendship, and dehumanization.

Currently, he’s exploring attitudes toward nature, the environment (e.g., climate change), and animals — hence his interest in and expertise surrounding this topic.

Latest Vegan News: What do you think are the keys for effective animal advocacy, from a psychological perspective?
Dr. Gordon Hodson: In many ways, advocacy is about the group in need of support, not you. Don’t let your ego, pride, or hurt feelings get in the way. In the case of animal rights, keep the animals in mind at all times. They have little voice or recognition; animals are relying on advocates to keep calm, appeal to reason, and set a good example to others. Although shock tactics can sometimes work to induce (short-term) change, long-term change comes often from being genuinely convinced, not from being exposed to strong or dogmatic viewpoints.

Moreover, keep in mind that meat-eaters find vegetarianism and veganism psychologically threatening. This means that those who exploit animals will be resistant and are likely to push back. Be ready for this. Stay calm and be firm. Again, think of the animals, not you. It’s okay to also recognize the concerns of carnivores, along with their wants and desires. Chances are you used to have those same desires, and that you presently have loved ones in your life that hold those beliefs. Your role is one of enlightenment and support, not dominance.

Vegans often wonder what approach to take when an omnivore asks why they’re vegan — do you think there’s a particular way to answer this question or engage in dialogue that would be the most effective?
This is a challenging question! Often the person asking doesn’t truly want to know your reasons, but rather is looking for a fight or to belittle your perspective. But I suggest taking the question at face value and answering it honestly and openly. Don’t be preachy or forceful, but consider yourself a tour guide.

I do suggest that you have some reasons at hand. Saying nothing can risk making you look ‘tribal’ or ‘ideological.’ Chances are you have some good solid reasons for adopting your lifestyle; don’t be afraid to share that with someone who asks.

An alternative is to ask the carnivore whether they are genuinely interested in engaging in that conversation, recognizing that it is awkward. Most people respect that you’ve asked, and are giving you a green-light to share your thinking.

How do you think an “all or nothing” approach by advocates affects the cause?
I think it can seriously hurt the cause. Most social change happens more gradually. If someone is interested in adopting a vegan lifestyle, a first step is doing less harm to animals (e.g., eating less meat; adopting a neglected animal). This can then be escalated progressively. The same is true for other domains. For instance, when it comes to climate change, the first step is to cut back on our own carbon emissions (by the way, a great way to do that is to eat less meat!). You will likely still drive or ride a bus occasionally, but the key is to do it less and be more conscious about your impact on others.

As I mentioned in my Psychology Today article the all-or-nothing approach can also divide not only animal rights advocates from the mainstream, but can cause divisions within the movement. Some vegans, for example, are very critical of vegetarians. To a vegan I’d say: ‘Vegetarians are not your enemy. Focus more on drawing them further toward your compassionate cause and build on their sense of morality.’

Why is it important to stay encouraging and supportive?
Animals rights is about respect and dignity. Don’t throw those aside to win the battle. It is understandable to be angry, particularly on behalf of the animals, but as an advocate you need a cool head. Think about it this way: are you generally more convinced by angry people who yell at you and disrespect you, or are you more convinced by reasonable, thoughtful people who genuinely try to reach out to you?

Do small steps matter?
Big steps can represent hurdles that are difficult to get over, setting you up for failure. And not just for advocacy, but for losing weight, quitting smoking, achieving work goals, and so on. Smaller goals are more obtainable, and you build on your strengths moving forward. There are decades of psychological research on the importance of setting clear, achievable, and reasonable goals.

And give yourself a break. You live in a world that exploits animals in almost every domain, from clothing to food to entertainment to labour to research. For some, taking the step toward animal advocacy can place them in a ‘minority’ for the first time. Becoming an advocate for animals is not easy, but what meaningful pursuits in life are easy?

Finally, the small steps are important for self-perception. The more you see yourself living a more humane life, the more and more you will come to see yourself as a compassionate person who is living by a set of morals that protect (rather than hurt) others. You will form new habits, socialize more and more with people sharing your values.

What psychological tools or tactics do you think animal advocates should be using that may be currently overlooked?
What a great question. In our lab we’ve been experimenting with strategies such as psychologically closing the human-animal divide. As an aside, this has the added benefit of reducing the extent to which we dehumanize other human groups. After all, if animals are ‘raised’ to the level of humans, there is little derogatory value in representing other social groups as animal-like.

We are also doing research on climate change, and getting people to recognize the danger and adopt change. Increasingly I’m seeing that these issues are linked. Disregard for the planet is associated with disregard for other humans and other animals. Eating animals contributes to more climate change than driving and flying all of the vehicles on the planet. It’s time to start recognizing that these causes do not exist in a vacuum but are intimately intertwined.

Finally, I’d recognize that most people are good and moral, and certainly want to be seen that way. As such, the biggest challenge is getting the mainstream to recognize that their life choices (e.g., eating meat) are out of step with their OWN morality (e.g., doing no harm to others). Research on cognitive dissonance shows us that people can become their own agent of change, bringing their behaviours more in line with their own attitudes and values. This becomes less about imposing yourself on others, but asking them to look to their own moral compass.