Vegetarian Research

*Nick Cooney is the Founder and Director of The Humane League –
[Effective Animal Activism’s](
charities) top recommended charity – and the Compassionate Communitites
Manager at Farm Sanctuary. He’s also the author of [Change of Heart]( http://, which is about how we
can use an understanding of psychology to make social advocacy more effective
(we recommend it!).

*As a member of 80,000 Hours,
we asked him to share his thoughts on how to use an 80,000 Hours approach to
approach causes more effectively.

Note that Nick’s views do not represent those of Farm Sanctuary

The Problem

For-profit companies (including the meat, egg, and dairy industries) spend countless
dollars each year on market research to figure out the best ways to persuade
the public to consume their products. Vegetarian advocacy organizations have
until recently spent virtually nothing to determine the best ways to persuade the
public, despite the fact that their entire success as a movement depends on getting
individual members of the public to change their dietary behavior. Until things
began to change this past year, there had been virtually no research on the impact of
various programs (i.e., no formal comparing of veg advocacy programs against one
another to determine which are most cost-effective), and also no component testing
of specific aspects of a program (for example, does video A or video B persuade
more people to go vegetarian?).

Additionally, while there is a body of useful academic research on vegetarians,
it remains cloistered in unread journals where it is of no use to advocates or
advocacy organizations. Furthermore, many studies provide information that
is only marginally useful to animal advocates. The curiosities of academic
researchers usually do not line up with the pragmatic needs of vegetarian
advocacy organizations. (I should note here that I’ve authored a [book]( http://
that analyzes the body of research that has already conducted, and distills its useful
lessons for veg advocates.)

Thankfully, the tide is now starting to change. In just the past year at least three
organizations in the United States – The Humane League, Farm Sanctuary, and the
Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) – have begun evaluating some or all of their veg advocacy programs and approaches for comparative cost-effectiveness. And the
Humane Research Council has been commissioned by several organizations to test
the relative effectiveness of different veg advocacy videos, why many vegetarians go
back to eating meat, and other things. But there is much more work to be done.

Why Research Is So Important

Research on vegetarian advocacy (and on vegetarians themselves) is important
because animals’ lives are important. Knowing that video A creates more dietary
change than video B, or pamphlet A creates more dietary change than pamphlet
B, can make an organization’s veg advocacy work more effective. To use just one
example, millions of dollars are currently spent on veg video and leaflet distribution.
Identifying the most effective leaflet and video, and/or improving its effectiveness
by even 10%, would spare hundreds of thousands of additional animals a lifetime of

And such comparisons, as well as general program measurement, need not be
expensive or time consuming. I recently oversaw a Humane League/Farm Sanctuary
joint study that examined (for the first time) the dietary change impact of leafleting
a college campus, and that also carried out an A/B split test on the effectiveness
of two different leaflets. The entire study cost nothing other than a week of staff
time and a few days of volunteer time to enter and crunch the data. And it yielded
incredibly useful results that have altered decisions at both organizations and that
will help spare the lives of many, many animals.

More broadly, research on the impact of vegetarian advocacy programs forces
organizations to realize that certain programs are dramatically more effective
than others. Hopefully that will guide future spending and prioritization, just as it
most certainly would for any for-profit business. How many animals are helped per
dollar of expenditure through an undercover investigation? What about through a
media campaign? What about through in-person lectures? Research can answers
these questions and help the vegetarian movement become much more efficient at
sparing lives. Research on vegetarians themselves can help organizations target key
demographics that are likely to switch more effectively, use messages that are more
likely to inspire dietary change, and so forth.

Why Is Vegetarian Research Only Now Starting to Catch On?

If you were to ask any vegetarian advocacy organization “Would you like your
program to become 10, 20, 30% more effective with just a small amount of
extra work?” you’d expect them to jump for joy. But we humans are creatures of
incredible habit, and it’s so hard for us to do something we have not done before.

We assume we know what works and what doesn’t, based on anecdotal evidence, instinct, and so forth. We always want to put what money we have towards
programming itself (an understandable desire). We feel pressed for time and loathe
to take on something new when we don’t know (from experience) that the results
will be useful. We don’t know where we would begin with research, or exactly what
questions it could answer for us. Probably the biggest factor of all is that it just isn’t
on our radar. We haven’t done it before, we don’t know of many other people doing
it, so the thought has barely crossed our mind. Thankfully, that is all changing now,
at least in the United States. Precedent has now been set, with a growing number of
the top vegetarian advocacy organizations beginning to carry out research that is
guiding budgetary decisions and helping improve their cost-effectiveness.

How Can You Help?

If you work for a vegetarian advocacy organization, especially one with paid staff
and financial resources, carry out research to the extent possible. It’s not hard to
learn how to carry out meaningful, valid research, and you can always seek guidance
from the Humane Research Council or from other
organizations that have already done similar research. (Or from me, I’d love to help!
Just drop me a line at [email protected] .)

Most importantly, compare the programs you are running to see how cost-effective
each one is so that you may shape future budgets accordingly. All of us would agree
that the right thing to do for animals is spend money on the program(s) that will
help the most animals. So hopefully we will all agree that it’s imperative for us to
take the time to find out which is which! Secondly, consider what researchable
answers would enable you to make your most effective programs even more

If you are a student or professor interested in carrying out research to help the
vegetarian advocacy movement, speak to a top vegetarian advocacy organization
and ask them what would be most useful to them. Sadly, there are many more-or-
less useless dissertations and studies that well-meaning (and probably vegetarian)
students and professors put an incredible amount of work into to answer a question
that they theorize would enable veg advocates to do a much better job, but which
ends up being of little practical value. The most pressing and most useful research is
likely to be identified by organizations themselves, and it is often simple research on
what approaches and programs create more dietary change per dollar.

And again, if you are interested in or considering carrying out any sort of research,
I’d love to chat with you! You can reach me at [email protected]

Here’s to the important and growing trend in the vegetarian advocacy movement of
turning to research to improve our effectiveness and save more animals!