Humane League Labs: Seeking What Works Best

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This week we feature a guest blog from David Coman-Hidy and Ethan Dussault of The Humane League, on a study recently completed by their research arm, Humane League Labs.

There are things we know about advocacy and there are things we think we know about advocacy. Animal activists have spent decades spreading the message of compassionate eating to millions. We have tried everything under the sun — leafleting, presenting in schools, social media outreach, and anything else we could think of. Yet, despite years of this advocacy work, we have very little information about which of these many approaches is actually the most effective.

To address this problem, the Humane Research Council was formed in 2000 to empower activists and organizations with data. Following in their footsteps, The Humane League has created Humane League Labs, a research division that seeks to gather data on what works and what doesn’t. We want to answer the questions all volunteers are faced with — what is the best way to spend my time? Is my organization printing the right materials for the right demographic? What kind of animal images should I use, the cute pig or the suffering chicken?

To learn more, we asked 3,000 respondents, mostly US citizens, including over 1,500 vegans and vegetarians, how they changed their diet, what their concerns were, and the motivations behind their food choices. We removed all animal activists and donors from the survey to give a better representation of average vegetarians and vegans. The survey was the largest of its kind ever carried out and we published the data in the article “Diet Change and Demographic Characteristics of Vegans, Vegetarians, Semi-Vegetarians, and Omnivores.”

With our new found knowledge, it was high time we took a look at our own methods. Many groups (including us) spend a good portion of our time distributing booklets with information about animal cruelty. The booklets are often covered in animal pictures — cute or disturbing, — narratives from fellow vegans, and tips on how to create a more compassionate plate. It’s an easy way to get our message in front of hundreds of thousands of young people.

We know these leaflets have some effect from our own anecdotal evidence, but how could we improve? How could we increase our distribution numbers? How could we enhance our message?

To understand what worked and what didn’t we created several different leaflets, each with its own focus, and tracked the response and effectiveness of our message.

Our street tests examined three central questions:

What animals should we highlight?

From a numbers standpoint, all leaflets would focus on chickens. There are more chickens suffering on factory farms than any other land animal. By just removing chicken from an omnivore’s diet, about 28 animals can be spared per year. Given that many who receive a leaflet will not go fully vegan, successfully reducing chicken consumption is our next best bet to help the most animals. So we created one leaflet that focused on chickens and another that highlighted cows and pigs. We were surprised to find that those who received a booklet that featured cows and pigs as well ate less chicken down the line (4.41 animals spared per all animals booklet vs. 1.79 animals spared per chickens-only booklet).

Should we focus on reducing suffering or health benefits?

We created two leaflets, each with a different motivational focus — one which focused on the plight of farm animals and a second that featured the health benefits of compassionate eating. This split test was the least conclusive — the difference in reported change was slim in this category (3.27 animals spared per cruelty-focused booklet vs. 2.94 animals spared per health-focused booklet, which is not statistically significant within the parameters of our study).

Should we focus on the why of vegetarian, or the how?

We know from past polling that strong opposition to animal cruelty is a nearly universal value. Should a leaflet highlight the cruelty that we know people will hate, or should we spell out exactly how to change your diet? When we contrasted the two in our leafleting study, we found that emphasizing “how to go veg” yielded a reporting of 50% more animals spared (3.75 animals spared per how-focused booklet vs. 2.45 animals spared per why-focused booklet).

So what did we learn? First, that our intuitions aren’t always correct. We initially thought that because reducing chicken consumption was important, we should focus on chickens, and, in fact found the opposite. We found weak evidence that an actionable leaflet, describing positive changes a person can make, is potentially more effective than an explanatory leaflet on the cruelties faced by farmed animals.

And these studies are just the beginning. We plan to go more in depth on each of our conclusions — revising and studying new leaflets with our new found knowledge.

For example, from our “Diet Change and Demographic” study, we found that giving up dairy is a huge hurdle for people making the switch to vegan eating. So if we want to get our foot in the door, initially focusing on replacing meat may yield better results. At the moment, the research suggests highlighting convenient foods like beans, lentils, and grains, followed by plant-based meats, rather than starting with dairy replacements.

Humane League Labs publishes all of our data and results in the hopes that others can draw their own conclusions and that all advocates can use this information. We encourage you to take a look at our studies and the more thorough analyses on our site.

Our assumptions and anecdotes can only take us so far. Sometimes they take us towards our goals for helping animals, but often we can be drawn to what feels right, rather than what will actually have the greatest possible impact. As our understanding expands, we look forward to sharing more insights into how to be an effective animal advocate.

David Coman-Hidy is the Executive Director of The Humane League, coordinating national outreach, education and campaigns. Ethan Dussault is The Humane League's Dallas Director.

Thank you!

The main thing I take away from this is that advocates should focus on the "how to go veg" more than the why. In my experience, most people are open to eating fewer animals, they just need to understand how to do it (and still be happy and satisfied). It seems focusing on health or animal suffering isn't much difference. However, if I go back to Veganomics, I believe they reported that people who transition slowly and people who go veg for animal rights reasons are those who stay veg the longest. If we emphasize both, there could be a small cumulative benefit over emphasizing just one. I wonder if this is similarly the case when the brochure addressed three farm animals. There is a cumulative impact. I could be wrong; it may also be that it is easier for people to relate to mammals. Once they make that connection, the transfer to birds is a spillover effect. Don't you just love science!? It raises more questions than it does answers, all while guiding us to (hopefully) more efficient and effective processes.

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