Adam Kol
Published on
April 7, 2016

What a Groundbreaking LGBT Canvassing Study Can Teach the Animal Rights Movement

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WHAT a GROUNDBREAKING LGBT Canvassing study can teach the Animal Rights Movement

10 minute conversations could change the world for animals.

by Zach Groff

Research into effective forms of activism is an often-grim field. The work is hard to do, and studies finding no effect from efforts at change are a dime a dozen. From a recent study on online ads (whose author suggests the effect is quite robust after a decade at Google) to studies on leafleting to psychological evidence on how hard it is to change our minds, it’s rare you find things that work. Given that, a study out today in Science Magazine, one of the top scientific publications in the world, is cause for a special look.

Political scientists at Stanford University and UC Berkeley spent the past year studying a specially-honed form of canvassing used repeatedly by the Leadership Lab at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the largest LGBT organization in the world. DxE organizers have been meeting with social scientist David Broockman and Leadership Lab Project Director David Fleischer to understand this project and how we can learn from it at DxE. Researchers seem to have found the rare example of a form of advocacy that works - dramatically - and that builds on an amazingly-diverse body of psychological literature to achieve its success.


On December 11, 2014, articles popped up in the New York Times and elsewhere purporting to document a dramatic new study from political scientists on the West Coast. UCLA grad student Michael LaCour had worked with acclaimed political scientist Donald Green to study a door-to-door canvassing program in favor of marriage equality organized by the LA LGBT Center’s Leadership Lab since the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. The study made waves for finding an unusually dramatic effect (a 20 percent shift in favor of same-sex marriage on a five-point scale).

Psychologists had long suspected that personal interactions could change our attitudes in a way mere information cannot, and the study seemed to confirm that. It additionally found a key factor in creating that effect: whether the canvasser themselves was gay. This finding confirmed an increasingly-popular idea in our culture that the identity of somebody speaking matters as much as or more than the content of what they say.

A few months later, though, some unpleasant news broke: the data for the study was completely fabricated. Political science grad students David Broockman and Josh Kalla had been invited by the LA LGBT center to replicate the original study, and in the process they found that the supposed survey firm had never been in contact with LaCour and that the data were riddled with statistical anomalies. Working with statistician and political scientist Peter Aronow, they concluded the data had been fabricated.

The discovery of this scientific fraud - one of the greatest in a generation - was deeply unsettling for academics. It was dispiriting for LGBT folks (like the author of this blog) for whom it was a piece of evidence demonstrating how powerful our mere identities could be in bringing people over to our sides. To know us is to love us, it had seemed.

It turned out all was not for naught, though: Broockman compares the experience to coming out as a teenager, and as with his coming out experience, once he got through it, people were supportive, and it paid off. Moreover, it turned out that the data, while fabricated, had been fabricated to mimic actual internal monitoring data. So Broockman and Kalla set out to study the canvassing project again. They studied another canvassing effort by the LA LGBT center, this time in Miami-Dade County, Florida following passage of an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect trans people.

As it turns out, the program does indeed work -- dramatically. The study found through scientifically-rigorous procedures that the canvassing program increased support for trans people on a “feeling thermometer” by 10 percentage points, equivalent to the average increase in support in the U.S. as a whole from 1998 to 2012. This shift persists over time and remains in the face of counterarguments. As it turns out, the identity of the canvasser was indeed unimportant. What was more important was the content of the conversation.

How it works

The canvassing program combines a number of ingenious but subtle techniques to persuade people as quickly and solidly as possible:

Step 1: a canvasser knocks on someone’s door unannounced, informs them that they would like to talk about a potential decision they may have to vote on regarding transgender equality, and asks for their initial views.

Step 2: the canvasser shows a video including arguments on both sides of the debate.

Step 3: the canvasser asks the voter to talk about a time when they were judged negatively for being different. The canvasser then leads the voter to see how their own experience offered a window into transgender people’s experiences via a series of questions. Finally, the canvasser asks the voter to describe if and how the exercise changed their mind.

What it shows

The canvassing program implemented by the LA LGBT Center offers a novel tool for activists across the spectrum, one developed under the supervision of an unusually-scientific group of activists with attention to every detail. It is this characteristic that drew in scientists and is worth looking at in a bit more detail.

1. You need people actively engaged and involved.

The key opening step in the LA LGBT canvassing program is to inform people that they have to make a decision related to the conversation. This has been shown to engage what psychologists term “active processing,” in which people scrutinize ideas and beliefs more than they otherwise would. In other words: you can’t make people change their opinion on an issue if they’re not thinking about it. Moreover, they can’t just think about it - they need to think about it more freely. Since discrimination against animals is largely invisible to people, and our choices to hurt animals are how we are largely raised, we may need to have that thrown off in order to change.

2. Persuasion is really, really hard.

Even with this expertly designed program, it’s still only a small minority that changes their mind. That small shift, though, is about the same as the seemingly historic shift in views of LGBT people from 1998 to 2012. In other words: get used to small changes, but realize that small changes can have outsized importance.

3. Self-persuasion is key (often assisted by questions).

We spend hours upon hours trying to persuade others, but changes in opinion may need to come from or seem to come from within. A powerful way to do this is to ask questions and lead people to explain themselves until the point that they reject prejudice.

4. Engage empathy and listen.

Many of us are taught to take others’ perspectives in school, but we rarely practice it as adults. Canvassers used the powerful tool of perspective-taking: they asked people to connect their experiences with those of individuals affected by their choices, and then the canvassers listened empathetically and nonjudgmentally, triggering the self-persuasion that was key.

5. Prime people to deal with counterarguments.

The LA LGBT Center’s canvassing program makes use of a technique often used in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: having people consider experiences they may have in advance so that they are intellectually, and therefore emotionally, prepared to experience them. By confronting voters with the transphobic ads, canvassers could trigger the negative thoughts voters would have once the opposition began their campaign. Then, the canvassers lead the voters to question the negative thoughts and respond based on their personal experiences, thereby priming voters to respond to transphobic arguments the way the canvassers preferred -- by rejecting them.

Broockman relates a particularly-powerful anecdote from the study. A canvasser went to the door of a veteran who had been discharged with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), unable to find a job as a result. When asked about the issue, the vet initially gave the typically friendly response. After seeing the arguments on both sides, though, the vet admitted to being suspicious of giving trans people rights. The canvasser then asked if the vet had ever been judged negatively for being different. At that point, the vet started speaking about his inability to get a job because of his PTSD and the judgment he received from friends and family alike. Then, he stopped abruptly: “That must be how trans people feel!”

Moving Forward

At DxE, following conversations with social scientists and contemplation about our activism, we’re preparing to branch out in some new directions. We’re getting ready to focus on local growth in key hubs, developing coalitions to pass laws that model animal liberation more concretely. This canvassing technique offers an additional tool in our growing arsenal. And while the previous, fraudulent study might have led us to feel bringing the right identity -- human or non-human -- to the conversation was crucial, we now believe that with properly-trained, empathetic activists, we can change the world.

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