Researcher Network member Sarah Gradidge and Dr Magdalena Zawisza, unpack the reasons for why people go vegan from a psychological perspective.
Vegetarianism and veganism (collectively known as veg*nism) appear to be growing trends: for example, veganism grew four times from 2014 to 2019 in the UK. Veganuary 2022 was also the biggest yet: more than 600,000 people signed up, improving upon Veganuary 2021's record of 580,000 sign-ups.
These figures are increasingly important in light of rising global warming and animal welfare concerns. Animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, contributing approximately the same amount (14.5%) of global emissions as all transportation combined. Additionally, billions of animals are slaughtered every year for meat production and there are multiple animal welfare concerns. For example, it is legally permissible that chickens are kept in cages in the UK (enriched cages) and Australia (battery cages), sheep are transported for up to 24 hours without food and drink, and calves are shot after being born. All of these practices stand in stark opposition to animal welfare standards.
We have explored why (most) people do not go veg*n and choose to continue consuming meat elsewhere. However, it is also important to consider the other side: why do people go veg*n? And, how can we use this knowledge on becoming veg*n to encourage other people to also go veg*n?
A big contributor to our likelihood of going veg*n is our demographics. For instance, women are more likely to become veg*n than men. Veg*ns are also more likely to hold left-wing beliefs, whereas political conservatism is linked to greater anti-veg*nism. These demographic-based disparities in veg*nism arise from issues such as meat being viewed as integral to masculinity and veg*nism being stereotyped as left-wing. These factors may be flexible to some extent. For example, men who believe more in 'new masculinity' feel less attachment to meat and eat less of it.
But there are more flexible factors that can be used to encourage veg*nism. For instance, people can become veg*n when they realise veg*nism aligns with their own priorities, such as recalling how not eating meat aligns with their wish to not harm animals. Or people may become veg*n when they experience a 'mindshift' whereby they become painfully aware of the animals harmed for animal products. Interventions aiming to reduce people's meat consumption may therefore emphasise how veg*nism agrees with people's already held values or remind people of the 'animal origins' of their food. Psychological research also suggests promising interventions. These interventions involve 'anthropomorphising' animals using the 'friendship metaphor' (presenting animals as our friends), avoiding instructing people what to do and/or using beloved animals such as dogs as 'ambassadors' to improve perceptions of 'food' animals such as cows. However, the jury is still out on which interventions are most effective and for whom.
An equally important, yet often neglected, consideration is why people stay veg*n. After all, encouraging many people to become veg*n, only for them to revert back to meat consumption in the near future, is unproductive. Sadly, research suggests most veg*ns (about 84%) do not stay veg*n forever: of these lapsed veg*ns, 53% are veg*n for less than one year and 34% only for up to three months. However, psychological research indicates a number of protective factors that encourage people to maintain veg*nism, such as a strong feeling of veg*n identity, feeling disgust for meat, and viewing animals as more human-like and empathising with them. Research also indicates five main factors which are linked to people reverting back to eating meat: reported health issues, practical difficulties in finding veg*n products, social difficulties such as stigma, feeling irresistible urges for meat, and changes in one’s moral worldview. Theoretically, if these five factors can be addressed (e.g., by increasing the number of available veg*n products), then people will be less likely to start eating meat again.
There are reasons to be hopeful. For instance, veganism is rapidly increasing in countries such as the UK. Since the beginning of the current pandemic, one in five people reduced their meat consumption whilst one in four reduced their total animal product consumption. Combined with the fact that Veganuary attracted an astounding 600,000+ sign-ups this year, these trends all indicate a promising future. We look forward to times where animals and humans can live in harmony with each other on our shared planet.