Do the Purists Know Something We Don't?

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A new report from the World Wildlife Fund says that successful social movements are “unequivocal in articulating what (they) stand for.” It may seem like a fairly innocuous statement, but at the root of it rests one of the most fundamental questions facing social change advocates. Namely, if one’s messages must always adhere to a specific set of core values. For animal advocates, this includes whether or not it is legitimate to use non-animal reasons to motivate animal-friendly behavior.


The World Wildlife Fund recently released a report called “Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Crossroads.” My last blog covered the report’s overall theme, but I wanted to spend some more time delving into the details because I think they’re potentially very important for animal advocates to understand. Let’s start with the report’s critique of the so-called marketing approach to environmental advocacy; in a nutshell, the author argues against “marketing” tactics and in favor of approaches based on core, shared values.

This approach draws not on analogies from marketing, but rather from political strategy. It is supported by recent work that underscores the importance of framing a political project in terms of the values that underpin this – rather than constantly moulding this project to reflect the results of the latest focus-group research. Any successful movement, it is argued, must be unequivocal in articulating what it stands for.

Of course, having personally conducted and/or overseen almost 100 focus groups, I would argue that they can provide a deep understanding of your audience if used correctly. But I think the most important point here is the author’s last sentence: “Any successful movement, it is argued, must be unequivocal in articulating what it stands for.” Ah, but there’s the rub: must animal advocates be 100% “pure” in all of their messages, or is it okay to employ secondary or tertiary reasons to encourage animal-friendly behavior?

For instance, when arguing for vegetarianism, is it okay to lead with a health-based message that appeals to self-interest, or must advocates rely only on compassion? Should feral and free-roaming cat advocates use the argument that TNR programs can save taxpayers money, or should they focus their messages exclusively on the unfortunate lives of feral cats? Personally, my feeling has always been to go with whatever argument is most effective in at least starting people on the path to animal-friendliness, even if what works is based on self-interest.

The WWF report doesn’t entirely disagree with my take, but it does provide an interesting analysis that makes a clear distinction between different types of self-interest (e.g., personal growth vs. material desires). Specifically, the report describes persuasion and behavior change as they relate to two general types of goals (or motivations): “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” ...

Individuals who engage in behaviour in pursuit of ‘intrinsic goals’ (of personal growth, emotional intimacy or community involvement) tend to be more highly motivated and more persistent in engaging in this behaviour than individuals motivated by ‘extrinsic goals’ (for example, of acquisition of material goods, financial success, image and social recognition)… This report presents evidence that motivations which are intrinsic are more likely to lead to pro-environmental behaviour. Moreover, this effect is found to be particularly strong for more difficult environmental behaviours – those requiring greater effort.

Conversely, motivations that stem from external motivations (for example, a financial reward for behaviour) or even what are called ‘internalised forms of external constraints’ (these might include a sense of guilt, or feelings related to self-esteem) are less likely to lead to pro-environmental behaviour. This evidence raises critical questions about whether ‘simple and painless steps’ urged upon us for reasons of self-interest will contribute to motivating an individual to engage in more significant (and potentially inconvenient or costly) behavioural changes.

In a nutshell, the author is saying that motivations driven by values such as compassion, intimacy, and community are more likely to stick, especially when the behavior change is a tough one. Furthermore, he argues that advocacy based on incremental changes (the “marketing approach,” which often involves appealing to extrinsic goals) should be more closely examined. I tend to agree, although without more evidence I still believe the marketing approach has some role to play in animal advocacy. In my next installment about the WWF report, we’ll look at the author’s advice to environmentalists and how much of it is relevant for animal advocates.

What do you think? Registered users are invited to comment below.


i believe the marketing stance is all important. one of the problems in any movement is a lack of out-of-the-box-thinking. use whatever sells (within ethical and reasonable limits). different people may come to the same things for different reasons. why should we expect they have the same reasons? hopefully, they'll grasp the same (the right?) reasons after changing their behaviour for different reasons.

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