Investigating Social Support as a Facilitator of Meat Reduction

The consumption and production of animal-derived food products has been linked to an amass of negative consequences: harming human health, exacerbating issues of social justice and damaging the environment. It is an industry that contributes significantly to climate change, producing 7.1 billion tonnes of GHG’s per year.

For these reasons, scholars and non-governmental organisations are calling for large-scale changes in the diets of modern society – a global shift towards more plant-based eating.

For example, Greenpeace International aim to cut meat and dairy consumption by 50%, in 2050, outlined in their Less is More Manifesto.

However, promoting a reduction in meat consumption is not easy. A wealth of research has investigated some of the perceived barriers and facilitators of eating a reduced-meat diet. These included, but are not limited to: a lack of awareness of the reasons for reducing intake, a lack of capacity for buying and cooking plant-based food, a lack of social support and the fear of vegan stigma. The list goes on.

Social support, or the need to feel accepted or supported by others when making a transition to a reduced meat diet is a commonly recurring theme in this literature. It appears to be both a perceived barrier to- facilitator of- more plant-based eating.

For example, 25% of respondents agreed that a key barrier to adopting a plant-based diet was that they would not have the support of their family or partner. And, in a series of focus groups, non-vegans recognized social support as a necessary facilitator for behaviour change towards plant-based eating. Two participants reference the importance of “having supportive family members and friends”and “the support from your family…and friends as well” in making such a dietary transition.

Even in latent profile research, social barriers have been shown to exist for three distinctly different groups of meat consumer, with a lack of social support being a particular inhibitor for those groups least willing to reduce. There is also research which suggests that a lack of social support can be responsible for a lapse in vegetarian or vegan diets. Research conducted by Faunalytics found that 49% of former vegetarians felt they had insufficient interaction with other v*gans.

And, all of this makes sense, right? Food and the consumption of meat specifically, is a deeply social activity. The vast majority of us eat meals in the company of family members, friends or significant others. Eating together is a socially facilitative act, helping to define group boundaries, strengthen and maintain relationships as well as teach and reinforce important values. In particular, eating the same food as others helps to establish commonality and facilitates social bonding amongst members of the group. So, abstaining from meat is breaking all of these unspoken social rules.

But, the vast majority of research on facilitators and barriers to meat reduction draws on self-report methodology. In fact 79% of papers reported in a review by Graça Godinho & Truninger (2019) used self-report methodology. The variable social support has been particularly understudied, with Graça et al, (2019) indicating that no experimental research had been conducted on this potential facilitator. So, can we be sure that social support represents a true facilitator or barrier? Or is it instead that this is more telling of the defence mechanisms people use in order to continue their consumption?

In my own research, I wanted to experimentally manipulate the experience of social support as a way to investigate its efficacy as a facilitator of meat reduction. To test the variable of social support I have designed a study whereby participants are invited to take part in a meat-free pledge, specifically to eat one veggie meal a day, for a period of 14-days. Importantly, they are asked to do so, either alone (lone condition), as part of a small group of 3-4 other participants (minimal group condition) or with members of their household (real-group condition). Those participants in the minimal group condition are provided with a private online space, akin to a social media platform, by which they can communicate with one another and seek or provide social support from the group.

All of these participants then enter a 14-day period of smartphone-based experience sampling, using the Metricwire platform. During this time, participants complete three daily surveys asking of their: intention to pledge, daily meat consumption and successful completion of the pledge

All participants are supported with a series of motivation- and capacity-boosting infographics that are delivered directly to the smartphone application. These infographics outline some of the reasons why we should be reducing our consumption of meat (motivation), e.g., world hunger, and how we can go about reducing (capacity), e.g., replacing chicken with Quorn or tofu

Participants are encouraged to provide written responses at three points during the day. First in response to the daily infographic. This is intended to get deeper understanding of peoples reaction to motivation and capacity based information. Participants also provide written responses to indicate reasons why they might have been unable to pledge, or lack the intention to do so. In collecting these responses we intend to learn more about the daily barriers that prevent people from engaging with reduced meat-diets.

All participants upload an image of their veggie meal each day as evidence of their commitment to the study. In collecting these images, we intend to learn more about the type of foods that people turn to when making a first attempt at reducing their consumption of meat.

The MetricWire intervention is sandwiched between a series of baseline, post-intervention and 2-week follow up surveys. Our baseline survey acts as a profiling measure, collecting scores of meat commitment upon entry into the study. All three surveys then go on to measure: 24hr recall of meat consumption (a behaviour outcome), a meat-veggie IAT (an implicit attitudes outcome) and a measure of intention to reduce (an explicit attitude measure). With these data, we will look at long-term changes in behaviour, implicit and explicit attitudes as a result of the conditions of our pledging variable. The image below provides a visual for these methodology.

Data collection for this project is now complete and data analysis has begun. Look out for future blog posts with updates on the outcomes for this project.

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