Enhancing open-mindedness towards meat refusers

An Interview with Social Change Researcher Maike Weiper

Feature image credit: un-perfekt

Anti-veganism is the aversion to or dislike of vegans, often characterized by the perception of vegans as militant, hostile, oversensitive, hypocritical, self-righteous, opinionated, and moralistic. Such sentiments can be seen in almost every corner of society. From the way in which vegans are represented in television, on social media, in national news and in scandals like that of William Sitwell, the (then) editor of Waitrose magazine who joked about killing vegans “one by one”.

So, why do meat eaters denigrate those who abstain from meat and other animal products? Across the psychological literature there is a growing consensus that moralistic impressions seem to comprise the majority of negative attitudes towards vegans and, to a large extent, explain why they are subject to discrimination.

Importantly, by developing our understanding of what provokes anti-vegan sentiments means that we are better equipped to avoid or defuse it. To understand how we can enhance open-mindedness towards those who refuse meat and other animal products, I sat down with Maike Weiper, a researcher in the field of social change. Here is what she had to say.

Maike, could you briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Maike Weiper and I am a research Master’s student at the Behavioural Science Institute (BSI) Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Generally, my research covers the broad field of social change and societal reactions to this change, but I am curious where it will take me within the upcoming years! Besides my studies, I enjoy exploring vegan restaurants and I also love to dance.

You recently published a paper in Appetite, with your collaborator Roos Vonk entitled: “A communicational approach to enhance open-mindedness towards meat-refusers”. What inspired you to conduct this research?

I know from my own experience how difficult it is to go to BBQs where you are the only person that does not eat animal products. A lot of these negative reactions have to do with negative stereotypes that persist about vegans in society. Vegans are often considered to be judgmental, dogmatic and moralistic and there is a lot of hatred towards people who refuse to eat meat. This does not only relate to real-life interactions, but also to contact on social media. To me, it seemed very difficult to change these perceptions on a more societal level.

Soon, I recognized that reactions to my diet were much less harsh if I mentioned for example, that I have been eating meat for a long time before I switched to more plant-based diets. Talking to Roos about this experience, we had the idea that changing how vegans and activist organisations communicate about veganism might be a way to change how meat-refusers are perceived on a more societal level.

Vegans are often considered to be judgmental, dogmatic and moralistic and there is a lot of hatred towards people who refuse to eat meat.

Can you give a brief overview of what you did and what you found with this research?

Of course! We conducted a study in which participants were asked about their meat preferences. After this first task, we introduced an alleged other participant – our target person – who refused to choose any kind of meat.

Participants then read an essay, supposedly written by the target person, about the target’s eating habits. Their eating pattern was described either in a static or in a dynamic way. So, participants in the dynamic condition for example read ‘I used to eat meat every day and I gradually started to eat more vegetables, peas and beans instead. Now, I follow a vegetarian diet’. While participants in the static condition read ‘Eating no more meat is clear to me since I know about its consequences. I eat vegetables, peas and beans instead. I am a vegetarian.’ Generally, our dynamic communication style was much more uncertain, but also more process-oriented than the static communication style.

As we had expected, dynamically communicating targets were perceived as less threatening in terms of anticipated moral reproach, and also as less arrogant, self-righteous and preachy. So apparently, a dynamic communication style does have an effect on how well vegetarians and vegans are perceived, at least in this online setting, but possibly also in real life or in society.

Dynamically communicating vegans were perceived as less threatening.” Photo credit: Frida Bredesen

In your research, you target the perception of vegans as moralistic as the crux of the issue. Other research, for example, by Minson and Monin (2012) and De Groeve et al. (2021) has honed in on the same. To what extent do you feel this perception of vegans are moralistic is bound in reality?

Many, if not most vegans decided to go vegan for ethical reasons like preventing the slaughter and exploitation of animals and reducing their impact on climate change. And like Tobias Leenaert put it at the Animal Advocacy Conference, even if people opt for a vegan diet for different reasons, they might soon enough endorse these ethical values as well. So generally, vegans thought about these moral values quite a lot and often endorse them as part of their identity (‘I am a vegan’).

Many meat eaters, however, have not thought a lot about the ethical implications of their consumption (yet). And even more so, society and culture plays an active role in hiding ethical responsibilities in relation to meat consumption.

So generally, I do see why meat eaters tend to see vegans as moralistic. They have after all thought a lot about this morally-laden topic. Still, vegans do have their reasons for their so-called moralism and I think many meat eaters would agree with their ethical values if they would think about them without feeling threatened.

In your opinion, what are the dangers of anti-vegan sentiments?

At the moment, it often seems as if society has the environmentalists, feminists and vegans on the one side and climate change deniers, meat eaters and some other groups on the other side. In my opinion, this polarization is dangerous in that it prevents social change from happening in whole society (instead of only in certain subcultures). As long as society opposes each other in these aspects, millions of animals still suffer from it.

Also on the smaller scale, liking is one key aspect in changing people’s behaviour. If meat eaters dislike vegans, they might never consider taking the step to reduce their meat consumption in the first place. So, vegans actually face a very difficult balance: They want to get across their message and ethical values while at the same time they need to be liked by meat eaters so that their message has any effect at all.

Polarization is dangerous in that it prevents social change from happening.

Your research has direct implications for animal advocacy, specifically, the communication styles that one ought to adopt when communicating with meat eaters to avoid reactance. If you could give two or three pieces of advice to our practising advocates, what would they be?

In my opinion, we need a lot more understanding for each other in society. Most vegetarians and vegans have once eaten meat in their lives and know that the step to eating no meat at all was hard at the moment that they still ate meat. Our research showed that acknowledging this difficulty and talking about diets as a process instead of a fixed end result might help people to make the switch. They may perhaps take a bit longer to become fully vegetarian, but reducing the stereotypes of vegans as moralistic, dogmatic and judgmental is worth it, I think. If society becomes less polarized about these issues and understanding for each other grows, I think advocates can achieve much more.

What is the funniest or most outrageous anti-vegan meme that you have come across on the internet or in television?

To be honest, I am not very active on social media, but I did see a very promising one during one of the talks at the animal advocacy conference. A lot of times anti-vegan memes are offensive, disgusting even, but I think it is interesting what people come up with when they feel morally threatened. Even though the meme I selected, “my food poops on your food”, is most likely meant to be derogatory, I do think it is quite funny!

If society becomes less polarized and understanding for each other grows, I think advocates can achieve much more“. Photo credit: Ayelt van Veen

What is next for research on anti-vegan sentiments? Where would you like to see if go?

A lot of research has already been conducted on anti-vegan sentiments. Theory says that it originates in a moral threat that meat eaters feel when interacting with vegans and also that it can have a lot of consequences for the vegans who feel the resentment but also for animals who suffer from this polarization.

I think that now is the time to move on from researching the origins and consequences of anti-vegan sentiments to studying ways to overcome these stereotypes. We need to come up with creative ideas on reducing the moral threat while still getting across our message and moral values and we need to think big. Our study was only on one meat refuser, but this problem is bigger than one-on-one interactions.

How can we not only increase the liking of individual vegans but also change the stereotype of vegans in general? What are doable steps on changing the societal picture of vegans? And looking beyond veganism: how can we decrease societal polarization with regard to these topics in general? Those are the questions that we need to ask now and that will hopefully bring about the social change that we want to see in society.

How can our readers get in touch with you?

Readers are welcome to email me at m.weiper@student.ru.nl

Author: Rebecca Gregson

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