Too Much Choice is a Bad Thing

| | | |

Continuing our discussion of why campaign targeting is important, HRC co-founder and Executive Director Che Green explores how decision fatigue can impact responses. He also considers whether simplification of choice should be applied to animal advocacy as a whole.

Researcher Sheena Iyengar wanted to understand choice, so she conducted an experiment. With her colleagues, she conducted taste tests at grocery stores to see if customers were affected by the number of choices available, in this case varieties of jam. Initially, the researchers found that increasing the types of jam available for tasting also increased the number of people who wanted to try at least one flavor.

The really interesting point, however, is that as the types of jam and number of taste-testers increased, the number of people who actually purchased a jar decreased. Instead of leading to more sales, giving customers too many choices seemed to overwhelm them, leading to possible “decision fatigue” and inaction. As Iyengar writes in her book, “the fantastic variety seemed to favor browsers over buyers.”

What does this mean for animal advocacy? To bolster our arguments, many advocates provide a laundry list of reasons for the target audience to change their attitudes or behavior. Our materials include sections for each of the main reasons to go vegan, to spay/neuter one’s companion, to buy cruelty-free products, etc. We include everything, hoping that something will resonate with the person we’re trying to reach.

Instead, however, we may be overwhelming those who would otherwise listen to a more focused message. While it may be easier to create a campaign that covers all of the arguments and is intended to reach everyone, it may not be most effective. When choosing your campaign messages and designing your materials, try to pick your most effective messages and match them to your most receptive target audiences.


Researching your audience may require more effort, but it’s also more likely to result in change for animals.1 The future success of the animal protection movement will require more targeted and personalized messages, especially after we have converted the “low hanging fruit.” The more resistant someone is to changing their behavior, the more focused the message of behavior change will need to be.

Questions about choice and decision fatigue may also have implications on a more macro level, according to academic researcher Corey Wrenn. In a recent piece, she argued that single-issue animal advocacy campaigns are competing interests that deluge the target audience, causing them to take no action at all because they are overwhelmed with information and choices. Dr. Wrenn writes, “Alternatively, if organizations were to simplify their claims-making and focus simply on anti-speciesism holistically, it might relieve potential audiences of the burden associated with too many competing areas of concern.”

This is an important question for animal advocates – should we continue focused campaigns or shift our limited resources to an anti-speciesism message, which in Wrenn’s view means vegan abolition? Setting aside the fact that many animal advocates are more passionate about certain issues and that many organizations are entirely focused on single issues, it’s fair to ask which approach would be more effective. In the long run, would a holistic, abolitionist emphasis create more substantive change for animals than the current focus on single-issue campaigns?

Unfortunately, I don’t know. And while Wrenn argues passionately in favor of the holistic approach, there is very little data to support it, if any. There remain too many questions about how people respond to animal advocacy messages: How many people can a vegan abolitionist message successfully convert? How long does that conversion take? Do single-issue messages have a higher conversion rate? And if you persuade someone to change on a single issue, do they become more receptive to other pro-animal arguments?

In the end, I’m a firm believer that we all want the same thing for nonhuman animals. While single-issue campaigners may ask for a subset of the change that vegan abolitionists seek, both groups are contributing their efforts toward the same goal, which is to end animal suffering caused by humans. I would argue that our challenge is not to avoid single-issue arguments, but to find ways to complement and build upon those arguments to ultimately achieve a cohesive and truly humane sense of morality when it comes to animals.

After raising these thought-provoking questions, Wrenn unfortunately segues into an attack of “welfarist” organizations, accusing them of focusing on single issue campaigns primarily for fundraising purposes. Sadly, this is a common downfall of many self-described “vegan abolitionists” who model themselves after the Gary Francione school of thought. Personally, I think we can argue the effectiveness of an approach without disparaging the intentions of those with whom we disagree. Making the tent smaller does not help animals.

I have been vegan for 16 years and I am an abolitionist. I believe the ultimate goal is to end all human practices that cause animal suffering. But without evidence that a vegan abolitionist argument can convert enough people to make a real difference for animals, I think single-issue campaigns are necessary. Animal advocates are too few – and those who participate in animal suffering are too many – for us to ignore opportunities to change behavior on issues that resonate with specific audiences who are otherwise resistant to a vegan message.

Finally, here are some practical tips to avoid decision fatigue:

  • Do your outreach earlier in the day, before people have made too many other decisions, or after meals, when their decision-making glucose levels have been replenished.2

  • Do not include all arguments for an issue in your materials. Instead, choose 1-2 of your best arguments and tailor them to a specific audience.

  • Convert people from “browsers” to “buyers” by targeting your messages and tactics to those who are receptive and encouraging specific behavior change.

  • Lastly, if you disagree with another animal advocate on the best approach, do so respectfully and without belittling their motivations or their work for animals.

Tough spot

I agree that we shouldn't disparage others in our own movement. However, I don't think human nature works that way. I personally see a lot of benefit from single issue animal rights advocay, and I've also seen streams of research coming from HRC on what techniques help convert people to vegetarianism, veganism, plant-based diets the most. I think there has been a lot of research on it, including reading level of brochures, use of graphic vs cute imagery. I've also read Vegnomics, which makes a strong argument to help people eliminate 96% of diet-related animal suffering days by eliminating simply chicken, farmed fish, and eggs from their diets. This is a message that seems to be much better received by most omnivores than the vegan message. I would love to see research on conversions, and whether these welfarist conversations later evolve into full-on vegetarianism as one would predict using the principal that most people make small steps or contributions before they will make large ones. Without years of research revealing compelling data that favors one approach over another (abolitionst vs. other approaches), there is no evidence to support one approach is better than another. We only know what we have actually measured. Personally, I believe a combination is important. If I were a hen in a battery cage today, I would hope that there would be people fighting to improve my conditions and for people to fight for my right to live (and the rights of all other sentient beings). By the way, I recently learned that France has passed a law recognizing animals as sentient beings rather than property. May we all celebrate in that small but important victory.

Re: Tough spot

Well put! Thank you for your comment.


" Personally, I think we can

" Personally, I think we can argue the effectiveness of an approach without disparaging the intentions of those with whom we disagree." I agree...I appreciate you covering my article, but I wouldn't conflate my evidence-based criticism with "belittling" and "attacking," which is pejorative rhetoric designed to deflect from the arguments by focusing on tone and my personal character. This article was published in a peer-reviewed and respected academic journal. Welfarist single issue approaches are lacking solid evidence as well, with most research interested in how much financial return is earned from outreach material (see Animal Charity Evaluators). Thanks for covering my work. I explore these issues in greater detail in an upcoming book on abolitionist theory due to be published next year.

"Personally, I think we can..."

Corey, thank you for your response, as well as for writing the original article. I appreciate the questions that you raise and think they're important considerations for animal advocacy. However, I do believe an assertion that organizations (or individuals) are prioritizing fundraising over helping/saving animals constitutes an attack on their character and morality. HRC works closely with many of the organizations considered "new welfarist" and I know that their desire to end animal suffering is both sincere and paramount.

My language was not "designed" to deflect anything and I did not address your personal character at all. Being peer-reviewed doesn't mean your article is evidence-based, of course; in fact, as I mentioned it is lacking in any substantive evidence for your claims about abolition or new welfarism. Additionally, the comment that most research is focused on the financial return of outreach is inaccurate and unsupported. We are very familiar with research going on in the movement and the vast majority is focused on program effectiveness and what works to help animals.

I look forward to reading your book and continuing this discussion as more evidence becomes available.


Looking for full text articles?

If the full text of an article is not available, click here for other options.

How do we select database articles?

Want to know how we choose the articles that we share? Click to read about our process.


Did you find this research helpful in your work for animals? If so, please consider a donation to the Humane Research Council to help us with the costs of maintaining, expanding, and improving