What Does Psychology Really Tell Us About Animal Welfarism?

By Sapphire Bat-Anat

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Welfarist campaigns often claim that their methods of persuasion and outreach are tested and true, but are the insights that cognitive and behavioral research offer really in support of a welfarist perspective? Here are a few ideas from psychology, the field I studied at UC Berkeley, and their applications to the animal liberation vs. welfare debate.

Cognitive Dissonance: Loving Dogs While Eating Pigs

Cognitive dissonance—the state of having two or more inconsistent thoughts or behaviors—is a stressful psychological drive. Just as hunger drives us towards satiation, cognitive dissonance pushes us to change inconsistent behavior. In the classic example, a smoker experiences cognitive dissonance because smoking while knowing that to do so is unhealthy is inconsistent. We all know that justifying smoking by disregarding health, switching to a “healthier” brand of cigarettes, or feigning ignorance are not solutions. True cognitive change—accepting the problem and quitting—is the only real solution.

A similar principle applies to animal consumption. When someone learns about animal exploitation and experiences a visceral reaction to the violence, she looks for a logical explanation. She could decide to disregard the issue, to switch to a certified "humane" brand, or to feign ignorance, thereby reducing her mental stress. Is this true cognitive change? No. True change is anti-speciesism. So when we bring the issue to the table, we must ask ourselves: are we changing minds, or are we promoting justifications?

Complacency never motivates us to act. The culture of animal welfare, the idea that there is a right way to do the wrong thing, allows people to reduce the crisis and not make substantial changes.

This isn’t that counter-intuitive. People won’t go to rehab if an intervention counselor recommends they switch to another drink; they go if they hit rock bottom. Society doesn’t change when small reforms are made; revolution happens when society has nothing to lose but its chains. For nonhumans, conditions are at rock bottom, and we need to show the truth. When activists promote certified “humane,” they allow our culture to adopt ideas about “humane” products as sufficient, logical, animal-advocate-approved responses to speciesism. As activists, we must show the inherent violence of animal use. We must show that the only way to truly act in accordance with our values is to speak up against exploitation in all of its forms.

Watch a recording of DxE's open meeting on welfarism here, featuring Wayne Hsiung, Sapir Fein, Brian Burns, and Priya Sawhney discussing welfarism from a psychological, political, and animal-centered perspective .

The Foot-in-the-Door Technique: The Slippery Slope

Another concept often cited by welfarists is that applying pressure to comply can be effective when done gradually. If we approach people with small requests (e.g., Meatless Mondays and buying certified humane), they will eventually be more open to larger requests (e.g., going vegan and becoming an activist).

In psychology, there is a persuasion tactic known as the "foot-in-the-door" technique. On the surface, the idea is similar: People look to their past behavior to determine their beliefs, so if someone identifies a behavior they were already persuaded to do as being aligned with a cause, it becomes easier to persuade them to take further action. For example, if a person were persuaded to donate a few dollars to charity, she would recall that behavior when later asked to donate more or volunteer her time. The assumption is that her small donation from before makes her see herself as a charitable person, and this makes her more likely to comply when another request is made.

So what about animal rights? Welfarism claims that we can promote “humane” meat and welfare reforms, and that over time, people will identify more with animal issues and eventually will become more open to liberation. What does the social science indicate? The famous study that first made me consider this position while I was a psychology student was done by Freedman and Fraser (1966). They found that people who were first asked to sign a petition to support safe driving were more likely to install a large “Drive Carefully” sign when asked. They surmised that a small act of commitment changed their self-image, led them to identify with the cause, and promoted further commitment to safe driving. The petition was a foot in the door.

Does this apply to animals? No. Having studied this, I can say one important aspect of this technique is that it relies on building a consistent self-image. Unlike the case of safe driving, where the cause is obviously supportable, here cognitive dissonance is at play. There is no leap from the safe driving petition to the safe driving sign, just a change in commitment level. Between “humane” meat—a speciesist position—and a true anti-speciesist worldview, by contrast, lies a huge cognitive leap. When we promote these small changes, we ask those who could be most active for animals to make no changes at all, and to appease their cognitive dissonance by praising industry rather than demanding more. Welfare reforms are not a “foot in the door” or a “wedge” into someone's morality. They will not change social norms.

Applying Social Psychology

If we want animal liberation, we must take DxE’s principles to heart: take a strong position on animal liberation, take direct action, tell the animals’ stories, build a strong community, and dream big. Awareness of a group is not enough to end stigmatization against them. Positive contact between majority and oppressed groups requires equal footing, ideally with goals that unite them, and a social environment that supports intergroup contact.

Let’s take the example of mental health destigmatization. The ideal place to meet someone with a mental health disorder is not at a psychiatric ward, strapped to a bed and depersonalized. The best way to hear about her struggles is in a way that personalizes her as an individual—someone with family, friends, desires, interests, and passions, no different from anyone else.

Similarly, we must promote contact in a way that does not further commodify and depersonalize non-humans. Ideally, we should all meet non-humans at sanctuaries. Short of that, we must share the stories of animals, individuals like Bob and Peanut Butter. We must do so in a way that shows how we are alike: how we all want to be safe, happy, and free. We must build a strong community that empowers us to address speciesism and share non-human animals’ stories. We must continue to dream big, to actively challenge societal norms, and to create a culture that promotes anti-speciesist thought.