Updated: Oct 18, 2021
“How do you know if someone is vegan?...Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Or so the internet meme goes. If you have happened to stumble across anti-vegan discourse online, then this meme won’t be new to you. Online communities of self-identified anti-vegans, like Reddit’s r/AntiVegan and Facebook’s Anti Vegan League, revel in this type of satirical humour.
The meme itself uses satire and frivolity to disguise the stereotypical view that those who eschew meat are intolerably vocal about such decision. And this view sits alongside the common perception of vegans as militant, hostile, and moralistic, as numerous studies have shown.
But, new research by Jan Willem Bolderdijk and Gert Cornelissen, published this month,
suggests that those who eschew meat, both vegans and vegetarians, may in fact avoid expressing their meat-free preferences during social encounters with meat eaters.
In this research, the Bolderdijk and Cornelissen adopted Solomon Asch’s 1952 conformity paradigm. In Asch's original study, participants were presented three lines, labelled A, B, and C, and had to publicly disclose which line they believed had the same length as a reference line.
However, before the participant made their selection, a group of confederates gave their own answer. As depicted in the image below, the correct answer was always visually obviously. And yet, on critical trials, where the confederates had indicated the wrong answer, approximately 37% of participants conformed and answered incorrectly!
In this classic experiment, Asch concluded that people were willing to ignore reality and give an incorrect answer in order to conform to the rest of the group. In doing so, Asch was the first to reveal the degree to which an individual can be influenced by group majority.
In their adaptation of Asch’s experiment, Bolderdijk and Cornelissen recruited vegan and vegetarian participants to complete an experiment alongside three non-vegetarian confederates. In this study, all participants were given the opportunity to sign a petition in favour of supermarkets increasing their assortment of vegan food alternatives, thus, expressing their meat-free preferences. In the critical the non-vegetarian confederates received the petition first and declined to sign.
When vegan and vegetarian participants were exposed to the non-vegetarian confederates who declined to sign the petition, just 52.3% of them decided to sign the petition themselves. The authors take this as evidence that meat avoiders are less inclined to support meat-free policies when exposed to the counter-views of a majority – an effect that the authors refer to as self-silencing.
In a bid to further understand the potentially liberating effect of an ally on an meat-avoiders willingness to openly support meat-free policies. Across some trials of the experiment, the researchers had the group moderator endorse the petition themselves by stating “I signed it, but don’t feel obliged to sign it as well”. When the moderator endorsed the petition, a much larger proportion of meat-avoiding participants, approximately 84.4%, were willing to sign.
So why do meat avoiders, avoid sharing their dietary preference?
Well, eating meat is a social norm and eschewing meat therefore a minority position. Comments expressed by participants during experiment seemed to suggest that meat avoiding individuals were worried that expressing their meat free preferences carry the stigma of being judgmental. For example, participants stated: “I’m not judging meat eaters” and “I’m not a fanatic vegetarian”.
Vegaphobia can largely be explained by a phenomena known as the do-gooder derogation; in which the moral motivations of those who eschew meat cause a defensive response in those who consume meat. Those who consume meat placing social sanctions, including ridicule, dislike and exclusion on those who do not.
In this paper, the authors suggest that fear of vegan stigma might cause those who eschew meat to avoid sharing their dietary preference. In another paper, entitled "If I became vegan, my family and friends would hate me" the anticipation of vegan stigma has been highlighted as a barrier to plant-based eating.
But what are the implications of self-silencing? In this paper, the authors, Bolderdijk and Cornelissen, speak at length about the problems with concealing your meat-free preferences. They are of the belie that self-silencing perpetuates the public notion that the proportion of people who eat a plant-based diet remains small and insignificant, in turn reinforcing the perception that veganism is a niche phenomenon.
The action of self-silencing can result in what is known in the psychological literature as pluralistic ignorance: the belief that one's attitudes differ from the majority.
For example, imagine you are in a lecture and totally confused by what the lecturer just explained. Imagine they ask the group "does anyone have a question?". You look around and see that no one has there hand-up and so you assume yourself to be the only student who doesn't understand what is going on. Chances are, the other students in the lecture also have questions, but look around and think like you, that they are the odd one out in a majority of people who totally understand what the lecturer just explained.
While the above is a fairly mundane example of pluralistic ignorance, it has been shown to be a real barrier in discussions around important topics like climate change. Of course , the idea that veganism is a niche phenomenon is counterproductive to the movements aim achieving a critical mass or tipping point. The authors warn that those meat-avoiders who decide not to share their meat-free preference could be working to slow down the movement.
On the flip side, there are benefits to sharing our meat-free preferences. In being vocal about our decision to eschew meat, we can act as an ally for those in our company who are perhaps less confident about making their choices public. In this study, the presence of an ally raise the rate of petition signing from ~50% to 80%. Now they are really promising odds.
The authors talk about meat-free diets as being contagious – that is, when people become exposed to peers in their social network who openly eschew meat or actively reduce it, they are more begin considering a reduction in their own consumption of meat.
Have you ever spoken to someone about your meat-free preferences and heard the common response: "I don't eat much meat myself, in fact I am trying to reduce how much I eat"?. I know I have. And this is evidence itself (albeit anecdotal) that in being honest about our decision to eschew meat, we can foster a more open environment for others to feel like they can do the same.
To read the original research article discussed here, please visit: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666321006267. Full citation below:
Bolderdijk, J., & Cornelissen, G. (2021). “How do you know someone's vegan?” They won't always tell you. An empirical test of the do-gooder's dilemma. Appetite, 168, 105719. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2021.105719