• Nick Cooney is the Founder and Director of The Humane League – Effective Animal Activism’s top recommended charity – and the Compassionate Communities Manager at Farm Sanctuary. He’s also the author of Change of Heart, 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 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 misery.

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 effective.

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!