When knowing the facts isn’t enough to become vegan

How is it possible after sharing facts about something that has direct significance to a person, they don’t change their behaviour?  Despite showing them how their choices are making them unhealthy or unhappy, they still ignore the facts or refuse to look further.  We still see people smoking despite years of advice that it’s not only bad for their general health but is directly linked to lung cancer.  It appears that for most people knowing the facts is not enough to change their behaviour.   Why don’t some people change just by becoming aware of the facts when others do?  Understanding the psychology of how people learn and change their behaviour can explain what is going on and vegans can use this knowledge to become better vegan advocates.

Learning something new, whether it be driving a car, playing golf or learning to cook, involves new knowledge and skills.  For example, reading a manual on how to drive will give you an overview of how to steer a car, coordinate the gearstick and peddles and use the mirrors.  However, when you get into a car, despite knowing the facts, it’s only by practising that you’ll learn how to drive.  With repeated practice, you can become proficient at driving.

Learning to play golf is a great example of how you can learn to do something for fun but can’t do it professionally. You might understand the basics but you will probably learn bad habits that must be ‘un-learnt’ before you can learn to become a professional golfer.  Cooking is also a learnt skill and despite following the same recipe, the results will be very different for the novice as opposed to the chef. Thus. learning a new skill involves knowledge, motivation, confidence and the right practice and often requires un-learning of bad habits before new ones can be learnt.

What motivates people to change?

Many factors influence people to change but a key distinction relevant to vegans is whether a person is internally or externally motivated to change.  For example, a person who suffers from asthma is internally motivated to find a solution.  When they discover that cutting dairy out of their diet will dramatically reduce their symptoms, they may stop eating dairy on the spot.  However, even when a person hears about the inherent cruelty towards cows and calves in the dairy industry, they may continue to eat dairy because they lack the internal motivation to change their behaviour.  A person who quickly empathises with animal suffering, might stop eating dairy right away, since they are externally motivated to end the suffering of someone else.  That’s why vegans, who are primarily motivated by ending animal suffering, hold their hands up in dismay saying, “It’s not about you! It’s about the animals!”

My experience as a psychologist has shown that most people are internally motivated to reduce their pain and increase their pleasure and they do this by investing in things they believe will make them happy and ignore or avoid things that make them uncomfortable.  That’s why resistance or denial is common after telling someone about animal suffering. The good news is that people who are primarily motivated to meet their own needs, can also change.  It’s often takes longer and vegans must learn to use the right ‘hooks’ when speaking to these people to move them along the Continuum of Awareness from resistance to choosing veganism. For many vegans, they would rather choose ill-health than cause suffering to an animal.  For them, there is a high level of emotional ‘buy-in’ to their behaviour change, something that is important in all learning. Whereas other people might stop eating animals only because their health improves.  It’s only later that they might open their eyes to the wider ethical issues.

Resistance to Change

Non-vegans often resist or deny what they are told about the health, environmental or animal welfare consequences of their consumer choices.  There are personal, social and cultural reasons for this resistance or denial, not always because a person is close-minded.  Their learning has taken place with in a family, culture and society in which they have learnt to see the world and their choices in a certain way.  For example, consider the typical food choices for people from different countries.  Most people associate curries with India, pasta with Italy, barbeques with Australia and fast food with North America.  People’s tendency to eat those traditional foods have come about because they have been taught and have observed others from a very early age that this is normal.

When a vegan challenges someone’s food choices because, for example, animals suffer in the process, that person not only has to ‘un-learn’ deeply ingrained personal and social habits, but possibly face family criticism and the discomfort that the world as they know it must change.  For example, someone who believes doctors have a sound knowledge of nutrition are disbelieving or alarmed when they watch documentaries like, What the Health and they learn that doctors receive minimal training in nutrition.  A vegan who challenges the doctor’s advice, is laughed at as a conspiracy theorist or self-taught google expert.

So, there is much more involved in someone learning to become a vegan and vegans will have much greater success in influencing people to change if they understand these principles and take them into account when talking about veganism.

Making it easy for people to learn new habits

The vegan who is primarily motivated by ending animal cruelty may find it hard to empathise with a person who isn’t equally upset with animal use.  So, when someone says, “I think cruelty is wrong but I could never give up meet or cheese”, the vegan often believes the person is selfish and uncaring.  This is not necessarily true.  That person may be open to changing especially if changing their habits has health benefits but they have no idea what a meal without meat or another item they have typically associated with protein looks like.  Remember, industries have worked very hard to indoctrinate people into believing that meat and eggs are essential for protein and iron and milk and cheese is essential for calcium.  Couple that with emotional connections to eating certain foods and industries actively hiding the cruelty inherent in production, and you can see why people resist when you start talking about veganism.

Finding the hooks to engage the listener

When you start talking to someone about veganism, listen carefully to their response.  It will indicate what they are concerned about.  If you begin talking about animal cruelty and they say, “Yes it’s awful but my friend became vegan had a protein deficiency and I wouldn’t know what to cook”.  This reply indicates that their real concern is likely to be about health or beliefs that vegan cooking is difficult.  By talking about these issues and providing facts and solutions, you will get a better response than telling them more about animal cruelty.  You literally ‘hook’ them in on something they are interested in and then slip in other issues to gently enlighten them to the wider issues.

These hooks tend to fall into the following categories:

  • Animal welfare
  • Social justice
  • Diet and health
  • Economics
  • Job security
  • Environment

Culture and personal choice

Whilst talking to people on topics that interest them, you’ll discover how likely they are to become vegan and how soon that is likely to happen. Some people will be highly resistant but be happy to talk about health or environment whilst others just need help to take the next step.  A useful gauge is what I call the Continuum of Awareness.

The Continuum of Awareness

Imagine that every person you meet is on journey towards increased consciousness, compassion and awareness. It’s called the 1 to 10 Continuum and is represented in the following picture:

Listen carefully to what people say, assess where they are on the continuum and provide information and examples to move them towards increased awareness. You can do this by identifying the hooks and providing information to expand their thinking on an issue. If you only talk about topics you’re interested in, then you run the risk of them resisting.  You don’t need to convert people to your way of thinking, or dramatically change their behaviour right away. Some people see images or hear information and change right away whereas others take time. Just move them along the continuum so they come to the realisation themselves. If you push them they’ll have a kneejerk reaction to an image or piece of information and revert to their typical habits later.  You want them to become a vegan permanently and by moving them along the continuum, there’s a much better chance that changes in their attitudes, values or behaviour will be permanent.

Personality preferences and changing behaviour

Personality is the consistency of someone’s behavior over time and situation and personality questionnaires identify different qualities.  One of relevance here is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  The MBTI is a self-report questionnaire that measures a person’s preference for how they perceive the world around them and make decisions.

One of the scales measures a preference for Thinking as opposed to Feeling.  People with a preference for Thinking tend to ‘…decide things from a more detached standpoint, looking at something as logical, consistent and following long-standing rules’.  Those with a preference for Feeling tend to reach decisions by ‘…associating or empathising with the situation, looking at it ‘from the inside' and weighing the situation to achieve, on balance, the greatest harmony, consensus and fit, considering the needs of the people involved’. I believe that ethical vegans are more likely to have a high preference for Feeling.  This doesn’t mean Thinkers are not ethical, or that they won’t become vegan, but that their journey to veganism will most likely come through more rational argument and understanding the facts than being distressed by animal cruelty.

This has implications for how you talk to people about veganism.  Listen to their language to see where they are coming from and combine this with the use of hooks to move them along the Continuum of Awareness.

Learning therefore comprises knowledge, skills development, emotional buy-in, personality preferences and occurs within a social context.  What can the vegan do to increase the chances of a person becoming vegan, if not immediately, to move them towards a time when they will make the transition?  Firstly, appreciate that talking proficiently about veganism is a skill and requires knowledge and skills practice.  The more you can practice having conversations that are non-judgmental, genuinely show interest in people’s points of view and responding to the hooks that arise, the better you will become in your vegan advocacy.


Tips and Techniques to get people to change

  1. Increase your knowledge.
    Show you have done your homework by learning some key facts about veganism so people don’t think you are just being emotional and opinionated. You don’t have to remember all the facts; just send them to people later to support your arguments.
  2. Help people bridge the skills gap.
    Help new vegans talk about veganism with their families and friends.  Invite them over for dinner and show them how easy it is to cook for others using plant-based ingredients.  Provide them with resources so they can build on their knowledge gap and practice being vegan until it becomes automatic to them.
  3. Find the hooks.
    Listen carefully to what people are interested in and ask relevant questions.  People like to be heard and get their viewpoint across so the more you ask questions, the more likely they are to listen to what you want to say. 
  1. Offer alternatives.
    Provide people with information about alternative food choices. Pamphlets and directories exist from local vegan groups which provide recipes using plant-based milks, egg replacements and supermarket products. People are more likely to try plant-based cooking if they know what to look for and how to use products in their everyday cooking.  In the same way, people will switch to cruelty-free cosmetics or clothes when they can see the alternatives.
  1. Move people along the Continuum of Awareness.
    Every conversation with someone is an opportunity to move them towards the day when they will become vegan.  Practice using the hooks to get people’s interest and viewpoints and gently tease in other issues.  Practice talking about veganism with other vegans so you become more skilled and leave every conversation knowing they are one step nearer to becoming vegan.




This original article was edited and originally published in the fourth issue (Sept/Oct 2017) of The Australian Vegan Magazine. This magazine is intended to reach both vegans and non-vegans through the latest news and research, hard-hitting issues, vegan celebrity interviews, animal welfare stories, and loads of other vegan lifestyle features. This magazine is available throughout Australia and more information about the publication and a list of outlets can be found at http://www.tavm.com.au



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