Who Views Vegetarians & Vegans Positively? | New Poll Results

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Guest blog by Hans Gutbrod, Ottawa, Canada

About half of American voters view vegetarians favorably, and less than a quarter view them unfavorably. Vegans are viewed less positively, but still have significantly more than a third of American voters seeing them favorably. Generally, women, Democrats, and younger respondents have a more positive opinion of vegetarians and vegans. These are among the results of a poll of 500 registered American voters conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a North Carolina-based firm, from February 21st to 24th. The survey asked what respondents like to eat, what they think of fast-food, which chain restaurants they like most, and a number of other food-related issues, as well as key demographic information. The findings complement HRC’s Animal Tracker survey, by bringing additional data into the conversation.

Among American voters, 49% view vegetarians favorably, and 22% unfavorably. In a pattern that holds for most cross-tabulations, vegans are seen less favorably by about 10%, yielding 38% favorable versus 30% unfavorable.

Democrats view vegetarians most favorably, as 63 percent have a positive view, and only 16 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Women are more favorable to vegetarians than men, with 56% of women seeing them positively, as compared to 40% of men. Women and men have roughly similar opinions of vegans, with about 40% seeing them favorably. Younger respondents are more positive, particularly in their view of vegans. Of respondents aged between 18–29, half (50%) see vegans positively, whereas less than a third (31%) of those older than 65 years view vegans favorably. Older people are less certain rather than more negatively inclined: the plurality, 44%, of respondents above 65 say they are “not sure” what to think of vegans.

Vegans are seen slightly more favorably in the West (45%) of the United States than in the South (36%), but otherwise the regions, including Northeast and Midwest do not seem to differ much. That Hispanics (71%) and African-Americans (41%) see vegans more positively than Whites (32%) looks interesting, but may well be the result of the relatively small sample of Hispanics and African-Americans, skewed to respondents reachable by phone and willing to take the poll, so that these numbers should be treated with caution.

Vegans are least popular with Republicans, who view them more negatively (41%) than positively (31%). Vegans also are not particularly popular with those aged 30 to 45 (38% negative, 40% positive), and men (31% negative, 36% positive). Yet a degree of uncertainty dominates throughout. Along with 32% of American voters, 29% of Republicans say they are “not sure” what to think of vegans, and the number is fairly similar for vegetarians (32%).

That nearly a third of American voters are “not sure” what to think of vegans suggests considerable parts of public opinion can be shaped, offering a major opportunity for mainstreaming better, healthier and fairer food. While the survey does not tell us much about how to undertake that outreach, the following points stand out, provisionally:

  1. Expand on Existing Favorability: it is a positive hook for conversation that half of American voters, and especially women, see people who have decided not to eat meat favorably. This finding, broadly in line with results of HRC’s Animal Tracker studies, suggests that an overwhelming amount of the population supports animal protection. Such data gives a good base for animal advocates to expand on that favorability, for example by helping non-vegetarians explore options for making their diet more plant-based.
  2. Help Non-Advocates Make a Good Case: given that research suggests that knowing people of certain groups tends to increase favorable views, one question is how to help non-advocates make a good case for healthier and fairer food. As a recent blog post from Farm Sanctuary points out, there are proven techniques that help describe the choice to mainstream plant-based diets in ways that appeal to people who eat meat. Among other key resources, Caryn Ginsberg’s Animal Impact remains extremely useful for this purpose.
  3. Adapt to the Audience: to increase favorability among new audiences, animal advocates need a pitch that is in line with the moral framework of their audience. Research published on, by Angela Gunther, reminds us that being right is not the same as getting it right: what appeals to our constituency does not always attract people with a different worldview. Even the short PPP poll shows how views of fairness can differ: the survey asks whether you are “willing to pay more for your food at a restaurant if you knew it would allow the employees who worked there to have health insurance.” Views are sharply divided, with 72% of Democrats saying they are willing to pay more, versus 41% of Republicans. As Just Aguy, a presumably Republican commenter on PPP’s blog, insists, fast food needs to remain cheap for the restaurants to stay in business. He stresses that “[m]y wife and I tip 25% or more, have both been in food service, […] and know the drill,” but wants tipping to be his personal choice. (According to a follow-up post, 86% of Republicans tip 15% or more, vs. 77% of Democrats.) To reach individuals with different views from our own, we need to improve our understanding of their concept of fairness, and how to appeal to it.
  4. Health Matters: In making the case for better food to new audiences, the PPP poll shows that health arguments have significant potential. According to the poll, 21% of American voters say they consider themselves to be obese (as the PPP blog points out there may be a lack of self awareness, as the CDC estimates that actually 36% of Americans are obese). Those concerned about their weight and health may be open to the message that recent research, widely publicized for example on BBC, has again reinforced that mainstreaming plant-based diets may cut the risk of heart disease by nearly a third. Indeed, along with Bill Clinton’s high-profile turn to a vegan diet, the health benefits of plant-based diets are getting more and more mainstream media publicity.
  5. More Research into Favorability: We need more research, of the type that HRC is undertaking. It is intuitively plausible that increasing favorability helps animal advocacy. However, we still have a limited understanding of the conversion pathways, and do not know much about how to increase favorable views, especially among those who have not yet made up their mind. More research could greatly increase the reach and impact of animal advocacy. (This is one reason why I have joined HRC as a volunteer blogger, hoping to make my 15 years of research experience useful.)
  6. Mobilize Reliable Funding: Quality research requires stable sources of funding, as I know from working with dozens of think tanks on four continents. PPP’s poll reminds us of how many additional questions there are to explore. One higher-level question that should engage us is how to mobilize more vegetarians and vegans to contribute to predictable long-term funding, so that research can contribute to promoting plant-based diets. This, in itself, is a worthwhile venture.

While the PPP poll offers a number of striking insights, some of the single-digit figures in the results should be treated with caution, as the survey focused on voters rather the entire US population, had a comparatively small sample size of 500 respondents, and a margin of error of +/-4.4%. For example, the PPP poll almost certainly overrepresented the number of vegans: it finds 6% of respondents describing themselves as vegetarians and 7% as vegans, when Gallup in 2012 found 5% vegetarians and 2% vegans among more than 1000 respondents in a country-wide survey. One explanation for the over-representation of vegans in the PPP poll is that they are more likely to participate in automated telephone interviews about food, since they typically have thought about their own eating choices. Also, socially conscious groups may be more likely to vote. This would give vegans more visibility in PPP’s sample of registered voters, as some estimates suggest that more than a third of eligible Americans—35% or 73 million—are not registered to vote. In spite of this constraint, the PPP poll offers a range of insights to people in animal advocacy, and anyone working to mainstream better, healthier and fairer food.

The full results of the PPP poll are here. Your questions, thoughts and comments are very much welcome.

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Hans Gutbrod is a volunteer blogger for HRC. He writes: "I love research, especially if it aims to win people for a good cause. This is why I find HRC’s mission so appealing: an evidence-based approach to show us what works in helping people make better, healthier and fairer choices. I know from personal experience that quality research can make a huge difference, as I have run a research organization in the Caucasus for many years, overseeing 100+ research projects to track social, economic and political developments. It was a thrilling experience: research solves tough problems, thrives on teams that enjoy collaborating, and mobilizes creativity. Good research informs our thinking, inspires us to tackle big challenges, and guides our action. I really look forward to meeting more people engaged with HRC, and its great cause." Born in Campinas, Brazil, Hans has lived and worked in Ottawa, Tbilisi, Berlin, London, Stuttgart, as well as the Black Forest, and holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He believes good causes should go even more mainstream, continues to work in research and development, loves mountains, wind & water, and is on Google+ and Twitter.

If you want to find out how to support HRC, click here.

Great site! HereHere, I

Great site! HereHere, I enjoyed reading your comment. I agree with almost everything you said, especially talking to students studying environmental issues about the environmental reasons for vegetarianism/veganism. I don't agree that food combining for complete protein is a myth though. It's a myth that proteins need to be combined in the same meal, but my impression is that people need to eat foods with methionine (rice, pasta, bread, etc.), lysine (beans, lentils, etc.), or both (tofu, quinoa, pistachios, etc.) each day to thrive.

Most people like us

I get some encouragement from this article because most people like me or don't have an opinion of me as a vegan. It would be nice to track this research over a period of a time, and hopefully this will be done. Let's hope there is more media coverage in the future, too! There are certainly ways that animal advocates can use this information to improve the odds of converting people. For example, target young people who are democrats or young people who are hispanic. More of these people will be open to the messages around dietary change. Even here in Canada, I have noticed a certain admiration from the latin-american community regarding veganism, if not total understanding of what it is all about. When I worked in Mexico, it was the women who had to kill the chicken, pluck the feathers, and cook it, the same morning it was running around the house. If they had an affordable, healthy alternative, I'm sure most would have taken it. When I was in college, I took a program in Environmental Science and Technology. It converted me to a bicycle commuter, but not a word was mentioned about diet and vegetarianism or veganism. Oddly enough, some classmates were vegetarian and although we all had an opportunity to make presentations on environmental matters (mine was focused on overpopulation), nobody talked about vegetarianism and why it is such a huge environmental issue. I think we should target college/university programs that are environmental in nature (e.g. Environmental Engineering, Green Business programs, etc.), as well as food oriented (chef training, cooks training, food service industry management) and make an effort to connect with the students face-to-face to discuss diet and its impact on the environment, their health, and the animals. Oddly enough, I opened a fairly recently published vegetarian cookbook that still spewed the myth of food combining for complete proteins. Obviously, the ease of the vegan diet has not reached the vegetarian community! PS - we also need to focus on ease of food preparation. If we know that 50% of sandwiches were deli meat, mayo and lettuce, we can really have confidence that marketing veggie deli slices and veggi mayo will be readily accepted. If only 2% of sandwiches are like this, then we have to find out what is most popular. Thanks to Hans for synthesizing this research so succinctly.

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