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Plant-Based Health and Nutrition
The Role of Cognitive Dissonance
Posted on August 2, 2013 by KDreher
By Sally Thompson, VegFund Volunteer
With people learning more about the realities of the animal agriculture industry, attitudes and behaviours toward animal use are gradually changing. In 2012, Faunalytics (formerly the Humane Research Council) reported that in a representative sample of U.S. adults, 68% of respondents viewed the animal protection movement favorably (Human Research Council 2012). Additionally, the vast majority of people tend to report that they care about how animals on farms are treated (Lusk, Norwood, and Picket 2007).
However, there is often a disconnect between what people believe and what people actually do.
The feeling of discomfort that arises from holding incompatible beliefs — and their expressions in behavior — is called cognitive dissonance, and it is one of the most widely researched concepts in social psychology. Research suggests that the discomfort motivates people to create consistency by altering beliefs, adding new beliefs, or reducing the importance of the discordant elements.
As animal advocates, how can we use what is known about cognitive dissonance to strengthen our efficacy?
Recently, a study conducted by Prunty and Apple (2013) sought to explore that question. In their research, they looked at how creating a state of dissonance affects intention to reduce future meat consumption.
The study consisted of 62 participants. About half of the participants were in the “commitment” condition, meaning that at the start of the session, they were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Animals should not be made to suffer needlessly in the production of meat.” A small minority of participants disagreed with the statement and were excluded in the analysis. The participants in the control group were not asked the initial “commitment” survey question. All participants then read through a Vegan Outreach brochure that graphically depicts the realities of animal agriculture. Finally, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their intentions to reduce future meat consumption and their levels of concern about factory farming issues. It was predicted that participants in the “commitment” condition would feel a greater amount of dissonance when confronted with information in the Vegan Outreach brochure, and would therefore be more motivated to adopt a change in attitude and behaviour as compared to participants who did not commit to any stance.
As predicted, participants were more open to the idea of eating less meat if they had previously been given the opportunity to express their disapproval of farm animal suffering. These participants were also more likely to show higher levels of concern with the issue compared to participants who had not been asked to express their stance. In other words, getting people to express their belief that unnecessary animal cruelty is wrong creates a state of cognitive dissonance when they’re subsequently confronted with the realities of animal agriculture. People sought to relieve the discomfort of this incongruence by being open to the prospect of eating less meat and by professing higher levels of concern with the issue.
How can we apply these findings to our outreach?
While further research is needed, this study suggests that before giving people information about farm animal cruelty, we should first encourage them to express their pre-existing caring about animals and engage in a dialogue that allows people to vocalize their belief that unnecessary animal suffering is wrong. Then, when given information on the truth about animal agriculture, they’ll be more likely to consider making changes to bring their actions in line with their values. Of course, it’s always important to present information in a positive, professional, and non-confrontational manner, and to keep the tips on effective communication in mind.
Humane Research Council. 2012. Animal Tracker – Year 5.
Animal Tracker Year 5 – Summary Report. Accessed on July 17, 2013.
Keele, C and Smith, R. 1962. The Assessment of Pain in Man & Animals. London, Livingston.
Lusk, J.L., Norwood, F.B., and Picket, R.W. 2007. Consumer preferences for farm animal welfare: Results of a nationwide telephone survey. Oklahoma State University. Department of Agriculture and Economics.
Prunty, J and Apple, K.J. (2013) Painfully Aware: The effects of dissonance on attitudes towards factory farming. Anthrozoo’s 26(2), 265–278.
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