Moderate vs. Radical: NGO Messaging Showdown

In the realm of animal advocacy, organizations often grapple with the strategic and ethical dilemma of whether to encourage incremental changes or​ to push for more⁣ radical transformations.​ This ⁢ongoing debate raises‍ a critical question: ⁢which approach is more ​effective in persuading the public to alter their behavior?

Recent research ‍delves into this ‍issue by examining⁢ the impact⁢ of welfarist versus abolitionist messaging. Welfarist organizations advocate for minor improvements ⁤in animal protection,​ such ⁤as better living conditions and reduced meat‌ consumption. In contrast, abolitionist groups reject any use of⁢ animals, arguing that incremental changes are insufficient⁣ and may even normalize exploitation.‍ This tension is mirrored in other social movements, including feminist and environmentalist efforts, where moderates and radicals often clash over the best path forward.

A study conducted by Espinosa and Treich (2021) and summarized by David Rooney, explores‌ how these⁤ differing messages influence public attitudes and behaviors. ‌Participants ​in France were surveyed on their‍ dietary habits,⁣ political beliefs, and ⁢moral views on animal consumption.⁢ They were then exposed to ‌either welfarist or abolitionist messages, or ‍no message at all, and their subsequent actions were observed.

The findings reveal that both types ‌of⁢ messages led to a modest decline in pro-meat views.⁣ However, neither​ significantly influenced participants’ willingness to donate to animal-protection charities, sign petitions, or subscribe to plant-based newsletters. Interestingly, those⁢ exposed to‌ abolitionist messages were even less ‌likely to engage ⁣in these pro-animal behaviors than ⁤those who received no advocacy message.

The study identifies⁣ two key effects: a belief effect, which measures changes in participants’ views on animal consumption, ‍and an emotional reactance effect, which gauges their resistance to calls for action. While welfarist messages had a slight positive impact abolitionist messages resulted in a significant negative effect due‌ to‌ heightened emotional reactance.

These findings suggest that while both moderate and ⁤radical messages can shift beliefs⁤ about meat consumption, they ⁢do​ not necessarily translate ‍into increased pro-animal actions. This nuanced understanding of ‍public response to advocacy messaging could inform‌ more⁤ effective strategies for animal rights organizations moving forward.

Summary By: David Rooney | Original Study By: Espinosa, R., & Treich, N. (2021) | Published: July 5, 2024

Animal advocacy organizations often choose strategically and ethically between encouraging minor changes or promoting radical ones. Which ones are more effective at persuading the public to change their behavior?

Animal advocacy organizations are often described as being either “welfarist” or “abolitionist.” Welfarist organizations seek to improve animal protection in minor ways, like encouraging better living conditions and reducing meat consumption. Abolitionist organizations reject all use of animals, arguing that minor improvements do not go far enough and may even make animal exploitation seem more acceptable. In response, welfarists argue that the public will reject the types of radical changes abolitionists call for. This is sometimes called the “backlash effect” or reactance — that when people feel judged or like their choices are restricted, they engage more in the restricted action.

The animal rights movement, like other social movements including the feminist and environmentalist movements, is made up of a mix of moderates (i.e., welfarists) and radicals (i.e., abolitionists). What is unknown is how effective these approaches are in convincing the public to change their behavior. This study examines the impact of welfare or abolitionist messaging against a control group.

Participants in France were first given an online survey that asked questions about their diet, political beliefs, trust in institutions like the police or politicians, their level of political activity, and their moral views on animal consumption. In an in-person session several days later, participants played a three-player game where each player received €2 at the beginning. Players were told that for every ten cents the group invested in a public good project, every player would receive five cents. Players could also choose to keep the €2 for themselves.

After the game, participants were split into three groups. One group received a document that described harms to animals, which concluded in a welfarist approach. The second group received an identical document, which concluded by arguing for an abolitionist approach. The third group received no document. Participants were then asked the same questions about the morality of animal consumption from the online survey.

Next, participants were given three decisions to make. First, they had to decide how much of €10 to keep for themselves or give to an animal-protection charity. Then, they had to decide whether to sign two possible Change.org petitions — one which called for a vegetarian lunch option in French schools, and another which banned the farming of chickens. Finally, participants chose whether to sign up or not sign up for a newsletter that shared information and recipes about plant-based diets. In total, 307 participants were included in the study, mostly women around the age of 22, who were 91% omnivores.

This study found that reading welfarist and abolitionist messages had about the same effect on participants’ views on meat consumption — a decline of 5.2% and 3.4%, respectively — in pro-meat views. Despite this effect, the study also found that reading the welfarist and abolitionist document did not change participants’ desire to give money to an animal-protection charity, sign petitions for vegetarian lunch options or against intensive chicken farming, or subscribe to a plant-based newsletter. Participants who read the abolitionist document were actually less likely to do any of those activities than those who didn’t read any animal advocacy message at all. The authors also found that participants who gave more of their €2 in the public-good game were more likely (7%) to say they would give money to an animal protection charity, sign animal advocacy petitions, or subscribe to a plant-based newsletter.

In other words, researchers found that reading welfarist/abolitionist messages made participants more likely to reject arguments for meat consumption, but did not affect (or harmed) their desire to engage in pro-animal behaviors, like signing petitions. The researchers explain this by labeling two types of response: a belief effect and an emotional reactance effect. The belief effect measured how much participants’ beliefs about animal consumption were affected by the messages. The emotional reactance effect measures how much participants negatively reacted to calls for action. By comparing the online survey results to the in-person session results, the researchers suggested they could isolate these two effects. They show that the welfarist message had a positive belief effect on pro-animal actions (2.16%), a minor emotional reactance effect (-1.73%), and an overall positive effect (0.433%). By contrast, they show that the abolitionist message had a positive belief effect on pro-animal actions (1.38%), a significant emotional reactance effect (-7.81%), and an overall negative effect (-6.43%).

Although this study offers some potentially interesting results, there are several limitations that need to be taken into account. First, for some important findings like the emotional reactance effect, the researchers report statistical significance at 10%, but not lower. In short, this means that those predictions are false 10% of the time — even assuming no other possible error. The common standard for statistical analysis is 5%, although some have recently argued that it should be even lower to avoid random effects. Second, the study measured pro-animal behaviors based on whether the participants signed online petitions, subscribed to a newsletter, or donated to a charity. These aren’t ideal measurements of pro-animal behavior as some people may be unfamiliar with technology, dislike online newsletters, be unwilling to register an email for an online petition and face possible spam, or may not have the money to donate to a charity. Third, the study primarily consisted of young university students in France, largely from the countryside, who mostly (91%) ate animal products. Other populations in other countries, regions, and cultures may have different reactions to these messages.

For animal advocates, this study serves as a reminder that specific messages must be chosen for specific audiences, as people may react differently. As the authors note, some participants were much more inspired by the abolitionist message than the welfarist message, while others reacted negatively to the abolitionist message but positively to the welfarist message. This study is especially useful for advocates focused on non-dietary actions, like encouraging petition-signing or donations to charities. At the same time, advocates should not conclude that all abolitionist messages risk a backlash effect, as this study was limited to very specific behavior.

Notice: This content was initially published on Faunalytics.org and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Humane Foundation.

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