Student Showcase: Ben De Groeve

Name: Ben De Groeve

Affiliation: Ghent University, Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, Department of Communication Sciences, Center for Persuasive Communication. Ben is funded by a doctoral grant from the Flanders Research Foundation (FWO).

Favourite animal: I can’t make up my mind which animal would be my favourite. I find felids and canids beautiful. The skills of octopuses amaze me. Dinosaurs are awesome as well. You know: Parasaurolophus, Pachycephalosaurus, crows and chickens.

Contact Ben by Twitter: @BenDeGroeve

By Email: (work) or (personal)

What is the central topic or question of your PhD research?

Perceptions of vegetarians and vegans (or veg*ns), particularly from the perspective of the omnivorous majority.

What inspired you to pursue this topic/question?

I strongly aspire to increase our understanding of the natural world and to support the well-being of sentient beings. The widespread consumption of animal products causes a lot of harm: billions of sentient animals suffer; it compromises environmental sustainability and human health. These harms associated with animal-based diets are considerably diminished by adopting plant-based diets. In practice, there are a lot of barriers to overcome to realise a plant-based dietary transition, and one of them is social. Humans are highly social primates and they learn to eat what the majority eats. Melanie Joy (2009) calls the cultural belief system that justifies the consumption of animal products “carnism”. In Western countries, veg*ns challenge the carnist majority and their calls for change are often met with resistance or ambivalence. My co-supervisor, Prof Dr. Brent Bleys, nudged me to consider doing a PhD after he guided my Master’s thesis on promoting meat reduction (De Groeve & Bleys, 2017). My main supervisor, Prof. Dr. Liselot Hudders, prompted me to consider a social identity approach in examining barriers and facilitators of meat reduction and plant-based dietary shifts.

What are some key findings from your work?

Although veg*ns are stigmatised for their minority status, my research shows that the impressions veg*ns arouse are quite positive or mixed (De Groeve et al., 2021). Vegetarians and vegans evoke similar positive impressions for their perceived morality, their commitment, and for being concerned about animal ethics, the environment and health. However, veg*ns are criticised, relative to omnivores, for being less normal, sociable (e.g., picky, difficult, boring, annoying) and more moralistic (e.g., self-righteous, preachy, close-minded). Moralistic impressions were by far the strongest predictors of veg*ns’ lower social attractiveness, and vegans in particular aroused more negative perceptions.

Based on this research, I identified two dimensions of moralistic impressions: arrogance and overcommitment, which can be construed as negatively stereotyped counterparts of morality and commitment, respectively. I call this mixed-valence perception of vegans the “vegan paradox” – inspired by the “meat paradox”. Consequently, I developed a theoretical framework to explain the vegan paradox within the context of vegan advocacy (De Groeve & Rosenfeld, 2021). In the paper, I outline a future research agenda to test and apply the framework, with the aim of bridging gaps between academics and advocates (see Dhont & Hodson, 2020) and advancing widely overlooked research on minority influence (see also Bolderdijk & Jans, 2021).

What theoretical perspectives have been useful to your work?

Social identity theory was a thread through most of my work. Social identity approaches (e.g., McKeown et al., 2016) posit that humans can flexibly identify as individuals or group members depending on the social context. Combined with a desire for a positive and distinct identity, this can lead to ingroup favouritism, which arguably lies at the core of the bias to perceive veg*ns less favourably than omnivores (MacInnis & Hodson, 2017). In my 2019 paper, I applied a social identity perspective when I exposed omnivorous participants to a meat reduction advocate who was either described as a fellow meat-eater or a vegetarian (De Groeve et al., 2019).

To gain insight in omnivores’ impression formation of veg*ns specifically, I relied on stereotype content theory – a term I use to refer to theories which posit that the content of stereotypes can be captured with a parsimonious set of dimensions (e.g., Fiske et al., 2002; Goodwin et al., 2014). I applied Landy et al.’s (2016) three-dimensional content model (dimension 1: morality; 2: sociability; 3: competence) to hypothesise that veg*ns – as stigmatised, morally motivated minorities – would be perceived as more moral than omnivores, but also as less sociable and socially attractive (no differences were expected for competence). I further theorised that lower perceived sociability and social attractiveness of veg*ns would be predicted by two additional attributes associated with morally motivated minorities: moralism and eccentricity. These hypotheses were largely supported, especially with regard to moralistic impressions of vegans.

In the vegan paradox theoretical framework, I integrated my findings on vegan stereotype content with theory and evidence concerning the meat paradox (e.g., Bastian & Loughnan, 2017; Rothgerber, 2020), the New Look Model of cognitive dissonance (see Cooper, 2007), and moral psychology, featuring prominent topics including moral judgment (Schein & Gray, 2018), moral reasoning and moral disengagement (e.g., Graça et al., 2016), moral identity (Aquino & Reed, 2002), perceptions of moral character (e.g., Goodwin et al., 2014), and animal ethics (e.g., Francione, 2012). My work also utilises perspectives from sentientism (e.g., Woodhouse, 2018), Joy’s (2009) theorising about carnism, theories related to minority influence (e.g., Levine & Tindale, 2014; Wood et al., 1994), and motivated cognition (e.g., Kunda, 1990; Williams, 2020).

How would you like to see your work applied or being used? Are there implications for animal advocacy?

The topic of vegan advocacy has received scant attention in psychological literature. In my recent paper with Dan Rosenfeld, I provide a theoretical framework and future research ideas to better understand it. In general, my dissertation is highly relevant for those interested in animal advocacy. One notable implication is that I do not consider idealistic and pragmatic approaches to promote veganism to be at odds, but as complementary and negotiable.

Idealistic considerations provide the “why” of veganism, while pragmatic considerations are needed to address the “how” of behavioural change at a concrete and practical level. Both approaches have pros and cons, and the applicability of each approach depends on a variety of factors, such as shifts in public opinion and the perceived distance between omnivores and veg*ns. For example, idealism is more feasible if public opinion shifts favourably; pragmatism is very important for motivating highly committed meat-eaters. In my dissertation, I elaborate on practical recommendations based on my own research and policy recommendations focused on supporting campaigns and education, environmental restructuring, and implementing fiscal measures and regulations to promote plant-based diets.

Nevertheless, more research is needed. I would like future research to scrutinise my work and extend my findings. So far, I have described findings for the omnivorous majority as a group, but I realise that there is considerable heterogeneity among omnivores. The ecological fallacy (i.e., making inferences about individuals based on the groups to which individuals belong) looms large. It should be acknowledged that dietary habits and transitions are highly individual. Although I examined some level of variation within the omnivorous group in my research (e.g., flexitarian statuses, gender), future research could focus more on within-group variation and compare omnivores’ intra- and intergroup perceptions with veg*ns’ intra- and intergroup perceptions to obtain a more nuanced understanding of intergroup dynamics. I also would like to see my work being used to examine perceptions toward other morally motivated minorities (e.g., effective altruists, environmentalists, feminists) and to better understand socio-psychological barriers to and facilitators of positive social change more generally.

What are some obstacles you faced during your PhD journey? How did you overcome them?

It might sound strange, but when I heard my PhD proposal was accepted, I was torn. On the one hand, I was grateful and very passionate about my research topic. On the other hand, I worried that a high workload, poor “work-life” balance, and a competitive research culture would lead to a mental breakdown. Unfortunately, mental health problems among PhD students is relatively common (e.g., Levecque et al., 2017). I did some “self-development activism”. I read a book about burn-out and Allen’s (2015) Getting Things Done. Fortunately, my worries largely disappeared when I shared my concerns with my supervisors. They assured me that we would work on the PhD project on a step-by-step basis and that my mental health matters.

Being open and honest about serious concerns and personal expectations may help a great deal to build trust and mutual understanding, and to avoid internalising problems. Of course, supervisors do not always have the time or expertise to provide specific emotional or academic support. In case you need help with certain issues, make sure to look for it proactively. For my second study, I consulted the effective animal advocacy research organisation, Faunalytics. They offered advice which considerably improved my experimental design. For the study that followed, I contacted Daniel Rosenfeld, PhD candidate at UCLA, because of his expertise, which resulted in a fruitful collaboration. I also have perfectionistic tendencies, which leads to indecisiveness at times. My supervisor helped me to relativize and “let go”, to make decisions and stick to them.

Any advice for new doctoral students doing work in this area? 

Although every doctoral student has a different background, I can give some general advice:

  • Choose your supervisors wisely, e.g., assess whether their leadership style is constructive, not laissez-faire.
  • Know what you want and don’t want to do.
  • A good background in statistics is useful when you’re doing experimental research. It helps you to better plan your research, to conduct power analyses, and to preregister your hypotheses.
  • I recommend doing more exploratory research in the beginning of your PhD project to develop ideas, theories, and skills instead of immediately doing confirmatory research.
  • I recommend following a personal effectiveness course somewhere in the beginning of your PhD, if possible.
  • Use software to automise your bibliographies (I like Mendeley). APA-manuals can help you with planning and writing down your research in a structured, focused way. Many journals rely on APA-guidelines to format articles, so I would recommend to familiarise yourself with these guidelines early on.
  • Realise that the publication process can be quite tiresome and celebrate if you reach an important goal.
  • Realise that your colleagues often experience similar problems, but also that social comparisons are not always informative.
  • Realise that writing a dissertation might not go as quickly and smoothly as you would like to imagine, so start writing well in advance and incorporate time buffers in your planning. For the rest: enjoy your leisure time, take walks, meet with friends, and take time to rest and digest.

What do you see as an important ‘next step’ for our field? 

Concerning animal advocacy, I think a revival is needed of majority–minority influence research. As I note in my dissertation, the dominant literature appears rather pessimistic about the ability of minorities to instigate change, but given that the influence minorities exert is often indirect, private, and delayed, it is easily overlooked by scientists, policymakers, and minorities themselves (see also Bolderdijk & Jans, 2021). Many people may believe that idealistic approaches to veganism (e.g., signalling moral commitment; telling the truth about factory farming practices) only result in social rejection or backlash. However, these ideas need further testing. Therefore, I think an important next step for researchers in the field of animal advocacy is to engage more with existing minority influence research and revisit these assumptions. In addition, I recommend researchers to invest more in interventions to challenge common psychological defences (e.g., unveiling carnism) and on animal uses beyond meat consumption (e.g., dairy, eggs, leather, zoos, medical research).

At the same time, I acknowledge that the line between idealism and dogmatism can be thin, and that moralistic behaviour may be a genuine concern both within and outside the vegan movement (Leenaert, 2017; Markowski & Roxburgh, 2019). To address these concerns, future research may focus on assessing stereotype accuracy, and on developing strategies to improve intergroup relations. The literature review by Graça et al. (2019) reveals that practical factors need significantly more attention as well. There is an urgent need for research focused on “opportunity” variables (e.g., availability plant-based alternatives, cultured meat, socio-economic barriers) and “capability” variables (e.g., learning how to cook plant-based meals).

In our article on the vegan paradox, Dan and I propose ideas for methodological advancement, including real-life choice experiments to directly measure behaviour, longitudinal designs to measure delayed impact, and interactionist approaches to complement experimental research. I recommend preregistration of studies to clearly separate confirmatory from exploratory findings and to avoid questionable research practice, like HARKing and p-hacking. This will generate more reliable recommendations to inform positive social change for animals.

Key Papers by Ben De Groeve  

De Groeve, B., & Bleys, B. (2017). Less meat initiatives at Ghent University: Assessing the support among students and how to increase it. Sustainability (Switzerland), 9(9), 1550.

De Groeve, B., Bleys, B., & Hudders, L. (2019). Okay to promote eating less meat , but don’t be a cheat – The role of dietary identity, perceived inconsistency and inclusive language of an advocate in legitimizing meat reduction. Appetite, 138(December 2018), 269–279.

De Groeve, B., Hudders, L., & Bleys, B. (2021). Moral rebels and dietary deviants: How moral minority stereotypes predict the social attractiveness of veg*ns. Appetite, 164, 105284.

De Groeve, B., & Rosenfeld, D. L. (2021). Morally admirable or moralistically deplorable? A theoretical framework for understanding character judgments of vegan advocates, Appetite, 168, 105693.

Author: Jared Piazza

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