Priya Sawhney
Published on
June 11, 2015

Celebrity Vegans: What Does the Science Say?

by Wayne Hsiung 

The Internet was afire yesterday with back and forth arguments about the impacts of celebrity vegans, most of whom adopt vegan diets for selfish reasons.  But one thing was notably missing from the discussions: evidence.

As someone who has performed research with some of the top social scientists of our day, back in my time as a researcher and then faculty member at MIT and Northwestern respectively,  I have a special interest in utilizing evidence over mere intuition. So what does the evidence say?

1. Celebrities don’t have nearly the influence that you might think.

Malcolm Gladwell coined the term The Law of the Few to assert that, when it comes to social change, some people are just more important than others. Those with special influence, connections, and fame – like Beyonce or Miley Cyrus -- can cause messages to explode exponentially. Gladwell’s popular writing refers back to work by a psychologist at Yale, Stanley Milgram, who famously conducted a study on spreading messages through a social network in 1969. Milgram’s study made two startling conclusions: first, that every human on the planet is connected within just a few small steps (thus the famous Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon test);  second, that an astonishingly small handful of people seemed to be “supernodes” through which all messages would be transmitted. Gladwell implied that, if we could change Milgram’s supernodes, we could change the world.

It’s a compelling story. The problem is, quite simply, that the data does not bear it out. Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia, showed us why. First, in experimental tests of message transmission using thousands (rather than dozens) of messages, it turned out that supernodes were not so important. Messages would, in fact, be spread through a small number of social steps. But there were many pathways through which this could happen, most of which did not utilize any highly connected person. The supernodes, it turns out, were not important.  A second set of experiments explained why. In everything from musical tastes to Twitter retweets, it turned out that masses of highly motivated “ordinary people” – and not a few strategically placed influencers – were the driving force for change. If Watts is right – as most social scientists now think (see, e.g., Christopher Chabris's takedown of Gladwell at Slate) – then we should be spending more time on building networks of highly motivated ordinary people and less time on celebrities. Gladwell’s Law of the Few should be retracted and replaced with the Law of the Many.

2. Focusing on selfish motivations (e.g. health) can “crowd out” intrinsic and moral motivations (ethics).

Many say that we should “throw everything but the kitchen sink” to convert people to veganism. Others say that humans, as selfish animals, must be given selfish motivations to refrain from harmful conduct. The upshot is that we often focus on selfish reasons for people to go vegan – health, beauty, etc. The problem, again, is that these arguments are contradicted by the evidence.  

In a series of ingenious experiments,  sociologists, psychologists, and economists have shown that selfish motivations can “crowd out” moral ones – and lead to more harmful behavior as a result. In perhaps the most famous example, Uri Gneezy and his collaborators showed that creating a material incentive to encourage parents to arrive on time to day care actually increased the number of people who would show up late. The reason? There was a prior moral motive to show up on time – the embarrassment of forcing employees to stay late, and appearing to be bad parents – but focus on the selfish motive, i.e. financial costs, crowded this moral motive out.  And when framed in a callous and self-centered away, surprise, surprise, parents failed to pick up their kids.

The same is true of focus on selfish motivations for veganism. To the extent it’s framed in selfish terms, people will behave selfishly (e.g. abandoning veganism the moment it becomes inconvenient). This problem, in turn, is not just theoretical. The vast majority of vegans (over 75%) revert to eating animals, and in an astonishingly short period of time. (One study found that 60% of self-identified vegetarians were eating animals again... within a week.) This reversion, moreover, is associated with selfish motivations for going veg. 

In short, if we want to create effective, robust change, we should focus on the social and moral instincts that have driven human beings since our inception as a species

3. Economic change, on its own, is not effective at creating social change.

Finally, many argue that the growing consumer power of vegans, limited though it might be at present, will take us down the path to liberation. Animal exploitation, as an economic industry, must be challenged on economic terms. Only by increasing the costs for exploitation, or benefits of nonviolence, can we shift our social equilibrium. Celebrities, given their supposed influence on mass consumer behavior, are a powerful tool to achieve this success.

But once again, the data from notable historical periods simply does not bear this out. Robert Fogel, the Nobel Prize winning economist, is famous for exhaustively researching the data on slavery and finding that, surprisingly, economic factors played almost no role in its disappearance. To the contrary, slavery was a massive, profitable, and growing system, right up to its abolition in the 1860s. But if slavery didn’t end via economics, how did it end? In short, moral and political mobilization.

Fogel’s research is part of a massive trend in social science that some have called the “cognitive revolution.” The basic idea: that we cannot understand behavior without looking at mental models and processes. Numerous examples of activism targeting consumer behavior -- from the failed free produce movement (which attempted to economically modify slavery via boycott) to modern green consumer activism -- have failed to achieve tangible results. In contrast, powerful moral and political mobilizations -- the antislavery movement that began in the 1830s, or the early environmental movement built on direct action -- achieved groundbreaking systemic change. Yet in so many ways, modern thinking within animal advocacy remains mired in outdated social science. As animal advocates, we too often assume that we can understand incredibly complex economic systems as if they are deterministic and predictable, e.g. with poorly-supported claims of how many animals we "save" via a vegan diet. And we focus on changing supply and demand rather than reshaping the moral and political ecosystem that determines what counts as a “product” (as opposed to a “victim’s body”) in the first place.  This naiveté undermines our effectiveness. 

Summing up, when you see the next celebrity going vegan, don’t jump on the bandwagon. First, ordinary people – like you – are the ones who power movements. Second, the selfish motivations that often motivate celebrities can “crowd out” the powerful moral norms that are our movement’s greatest weapons. Third, even if celebrities drive consumer behavior, that alone is not sufficient to drive social change.

So by all means, keep eating vegan, Hollywood. Just don't expect social change to result.

Because it is the moral power of ordinary people -- and not a celebrity-inspired consumer fad -- that will change the world for animals. 

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