The Persuasion Problem

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In part 2 of our four-part series discussing Martin Balluch’s essay, “Abolitionism vs. Reformism,” we address why public education is not enough to create real change for animals. Persuasion is inherently limited by human nature and the mechanics of population growth. While animal advocates should continue to work on persuasion to achieve public support, it should be used more strategically and in support of more pervasive, system-wide changes.


In continuing our discussion of Balluch’s insightful essay, we discuss the problem with persuasion. That is, unless animal interests reach a tipping point of relatively massive proportions, advocates’ efforts to persuade a majority of people to adopt more animal-friendly behavior will be mostly unsuccessful. This is not because advocates are dim-witted or that people are inherently cruel; rather, it’s simply a numbers game that keeps advocates’ gains modest relative to what’s happening with the global population and its overall impact on animals, at least for the near-term future.

You see, the world’s population is still increasing rapidly. We’re adding six million new people per month to the total human population. Those dynamics are likely to change over time as the standard of living normalizes between developed and less-developed countries. But in the short term, the population is going gangbusters and growing at a much faster rate than our ability to persuade people to be more animal friendly, which of course creates an inherent problem for animal advocates, as noted by Balluch.

If a singular event like one person turning vegan is to have a political effect on society at large, it would have to happen en masse. In Austria, every year 80,000 people die and equally about 80,000 people are born or migrate into the country. In order to change society at large this way, there would have to be a rate of people turning vegan well above and beyond this number per year. In reality, we are very far from that... 130 years of campaigning for humans becoming vegetarian or vegan did have no large impact on society. It seems that the social pressure in our speciesist society prevents enough people to turn vegan and stay vegan long enough to change society at large. After 130 years of trying it, no vegan revolution is in sight.

Balluch’s article draws heavily on specific examples from Austria, but we can translate this example to the U.S., where population growth averages about 3 million people per year (including net immigration). This annual increase is more than the entire current population of vegans in the U.S., according to most estimates. Therefore, for vegans to become a meaningful segment of the population anytime soon would necessitate a sweeping and abrupt change. But this is highly unlikely because, as I have pointed out in other posts, people do not change quickly, particularly when it comes to very entrenched behaviors like how we treat animals.

Unfortunately, population growth also inhibits persuading a majority of people to engage in other animal-friendly behaviors besides vegetarianism and veganism, including adopting instead of buying companion animals, choosing cruelty-free products, etc. The sad reality is that the limited number of animal advocates, along with the painfully slow progress yielded by education and persuasion, probably mean that animal advocacy will be a very long social justice battle; perhaps the longest yet.

So should animal advocates just sit back and wait for population growth to slow down? Of course not, but these facts on the ground do suggest that the animal protection movement needs new approaches, to focus less on persuasion and education of the “general public.” But what is the answer, if it’s not persuasion? It is something Balluch calls “system change,” which means changing laws and policies without first relying on changing hearts and minds. By changing the system, Balluch argues, we can achieve 100% behavior change, which could never happen through persuasion.

The (Austrian anti animal circus) campaign had a 100% success rate changing the behaviour of Austrians. But during the campaign, nobody tried to change the minds of individual people. That never was the strategy. Instead, the campaign just removed such circuses from Austria. While having not changed the minds of people, this changed their behaviour.

The data provide clear evidence: while trying to change people’s minds has very limited success and even less influence on their behaviour, system change leads to a 100% success in behavioural change. Applying these findings to veganism, we have to conclude that political animal rights activists should primarily try to change the system and not people’s minds. The latter is simply hopeless as a strategy to change society. If it is being pursued exclusively, it will have no effect on society at large.

Balluch further emphasizes this with an example:

Say we want to gain some land from the shallow sea to establish new living space. Trying to change people’s minds is like trying to remove the water from the sea with a spoon. You might succeed in removing some drops, but the larger picture will not change. You could never have enough people removing water with spoons to actually get the land dry. A system change now would be for example to drive in with a digger and to build a dam. Now the water in our area is isolated from the water in the sea. The system is changed. We don’t have to remove the water now, we just let nature take its course. And after so and so long, the water will have dried out and we can use the land. The system change did not remove single drops, but it led to a lasting change of the whole.

The point? Animal advocates should put down their spoons and start building dams. Persuasion plays an important role in assuring that public perception does not block our ability to create system-wide change, but that system change should be animal advocates’ primary focus. By themselves, our efforts at persuasion (i.e., trying to change peoples’ minds) will at best chip away at the current mountain of animal abuse and suffering. In the long-term, persuasion and public education are just tools in support of broader legal and policy changes.

Contrary to how it may sound, however, I personally think this is good news. Those of us who care about animals know what a “long hard slog” it can be to persuade other people to include animals within their circle of compassion. System change is no easy path, of course, but it’s arguably much easier than persuading six billion people to change their behavior based on empathy. If more animal advocates would shift their focus to system change instead of public education and persuasion, we could do much more for animals, and also do it more quickly.

Persuasion Problem

Agree very much with points made. "Persuasion plays an important role in assuring that public perception does not block our ability to create system-wide change, but that system change should be animal advocates’ primary focus." There are a few examples in history when public perception has galvanized and brought about lasting change (and often it is via art as persuasion, e.g., the book Black Beauty brought about a rush to lasting changes for horses, or via outrage as persuasion, as Katrina has brought about changes regarding pets in a disaster, and as we hope the Vick case will do regarding dog fighting). One of the most effective acts of persuasion was the designated driver campaign, also an example of art (generously calling Hollywood an art form) as persuasion. This was a project of the Harvard Center for Health Communication. With a relatively small grant, they formed partnerships with all the major Hollywood studios and television networks to include in story lines a designated driver, and industry estimates are that they received more than $100 million in in network airtime in just the first year. Almost overnight the term "designated driver" was a household word, and was saving lives. History seems to indicate that if you ARE going to work on persuasion, do it very strategically, or jump quickly on national outrage. (Or concentrate on persuading those that can approve or block the building of the dam.)Another lesson from the Harvard project is we should be willing to be humble enough and smart enough to seek out and replicate best practices. The idea of a designated driver originated in Scandinavia.

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