Nudging people away from meat: Promising directions and challenges

By Stefan Leach and Jared Piazza

Cover image by motomoto sc

In 1999, Schiphol airport made the seemingly odd choice to etch the image of a fly in the urinal bowls of their male toilets. This resulted in an 80% reduction in mess because it gave men something to take aim at, and has come to be known as the quintessential ‘nudge’ – an intervention or modification of the environment that steers people towards a desirable behaviour, arguably, while preserving freedom of choice.

The nudge approach promises substantial behavioural change with relatively small interventions and has been applied with success in areas such as smoking cessation, retirement savings, college enrolment, energy consumption, and eating (Benartzi et al., 2017). The approach presents an exciting prospect for those looking for ways to intervene on food choices. If we can subtly intervene within contexts in which people make their choices, perhaps we can nudge them towards the healthier and more ethical options.

Which sort of nudge?

When it comes to nudging people towards better eating, there are many ways to do this. A nudge may involve altering the layout of an environment to make the ethical choice more visible or accessible (accessibility and default-option nudges) – consider how foods are organised at checkout counters or on restaurant menus. The seller might endeavour to better inform consumers about the reasons for selecting a product (informational nudges) or alter how a product is presented (presentational nudges). Finally, nudges might entail consumers being approached or invited to reflect on or reconsider their choices (self-monitoring nudges).

Whether a given nudge is likely to be effective depends on a variety of factors, including the degree to which consumers have behavioural commitments or strong preferences for particular options. Here, we consider some of the more promising nudges that have been applied to consumer behaviour, and reflect on some of their limits and challenges.

Accessibility and Default-Option Nudges

Making foods more accessible can nudge people towards choosing them. Supermarkets know this and it is why, often to our detriment, they place sweets within arms reach at checkout counters. Kongsbak and colleagues (2016) tested if people could be encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables by placing these healthier options before meat, bread, and pasta on a buffet cart. Doing so increased the proportion of fruits and vegetables consumed, compared to the standard buffet set-up of having fruits and vegetables at the end. Garnett and colleagues (2019) tested a similar intervention by increasing the number of vegetarian options (to meat options) from 1:4 to 2:4 at a University cafeteria over a 12 month period. They found that this increased vegetarian meal sales and decreased meat sales.

Presenting the vegetarian dish as the default on a menu boosted sales (Gravert & Kurz, 2021). Photo credit: Catherine Heath

Which food options are identified as the default can nudge people towards particular choices. Gravert and Kurz (2021) handed out two different lunch menus to restaurant customers in Gothenburg. The first included a meat dish among the default options and a vegetarian option on request. The second included a vegetarian dish among the defaults and a meat dish on request. Customers who received the menu with the vegetarian dish as default were less likely to order the meat option and more likely to order the vegetarian one (see also Kurz, 2018; Parkin & Attwood, 2022). Hansen and colleagues (2021) tested the effect of changing the default meal option from non-vegetarian to vegetarian for conference delegates. In one case, this resulted in a staggering 76 percentage-point increase in delegates choosing the vegetarian option (from 13% to 89%).

Informational Nudges

Informational nudges seek to provide consumers with relevant information about their choices. With regards to meat, this might be information about the animals involved or the impact of meat on personal health or the environment. Or the information could be aimed at shifting perceptions about current consumer norms.

Choueiki et al. (2021) placed informational stickers on a meat product (beef patty), much like “warning labels” on cigarette packages. The stickers either emphasised that cows are intelligent, that they are sociable, or experience physical pain like humans, or they simply included an image of a cow or no sticker (as a baseline). Compared to the image-only and no sticker control, it was the information about cows’ ability to suffer that particularly lowered purchasing intentions. The conclusion: information about animal suffering can discourage people from purchasing meat.

Social norm nudges work by updating people’s beliefs about what people around them are doing. They encourage participation in a practice by motivating people to be in step with current social norms. Probably the most studied social-norm intervention involves providing consumers with “dynamic norm messages”, where consumers learn that the norms around a particular behaviour, like vegetarian eating, are shifting. Sparkman and colleagues (2020) showed that subtle exposure to dynamic norm messages could shift consumer behaviour towards less meat. The researchers placed a dynamic norm message, “Our meatless burgers are on the rise”, at the top of a menu displayed in a university cafeteria. Vegetarian orders increased by 1.4% among students (identified by the use of their student ID card) in the weeks that the message was visible, compared to weeks where the message was absent. In a similar vein, a study by Bolderdijk and Cornelissen (2022) found that omnivores were more likely to endorse a petition to increase the number of veggie options on campus when the experimenter themselves had signed the petition, thus, communicating a local norm to support the effort.

Presentational Nudges

How food options are presented can nudge people towards a particular option. For example, packaging and labelling meat alternatives in a way that emphasises their taste profile seems to be important for consumer acceptance (Parry & Szejda, 2019).

Studies have shown that meat products can be made less appealing by presenting them in ways that remind people of their animal origins. For example, Kunst and Hohle (2016) had consumers rate how appetising they found a hog roast that either included the pig’s head or not. Including the head made consumers think more about the slaughtered animal, feel sympathy for it, and, as a result, they rated the dish less appealing. Likewise, Piazza and colleagues (2018) had omnivores evaluate meat dishes that had been visually presented with a baby or adult animal, or no animal. Consumers, particularly women, found the meat less appealing when it was paired with the baby animal, as their feelings of tenderness towards the animal were momentarily aroused.

Self-monitoring Nudges

Self-monitoring nudges invite people to engage with a new behaviour or reflect on their reasons for engaging in a current behaviour. An example of this might be a campaign (e.g., Veganuary) that asks consumers to join a “pledge” to eat meat-free for a period of time. Another example might be sampling a meat alternative at a grocery store. By engaging with the action for a period of time, such nudges might help awaken in someone the realisation that alternative actions are possible or even desirable. Pledges can be tailored or paired with other interventions to enhance a sense of commitment – for example, providing reasons for the pledge or encouraging individuals to pledge with their family or partner. 

In a recent study, Piazza and colleagues (2021) invited omnivores from the UK, Germany and Australia to eat “meat-free” for a month and their food choices were tracked for 28 days. A control group of omnivores at each site were tracked without this invitation. The authors found that meat consumption substantially dropped during the pledging period, relative to the control group, suggesting that pledges can be an effective way of getting people to engage in a new behaviour. However, those who participated in the pledge reported craving meat at high rates, and one-month after the pledge was over, eating habits had returned to pre-intervention rates. This suggests that pledging alone is not sufficient to maintain the behaviour. Additional support is needed to ensure consumers are satisfied with their choices and know how to maintain them. 

When a nudge is not enough

The findings discussed above are encouraging and suggest that we can nudge people towards more ethical options by intervening within the contexts in which food choices are made. Successful nudges embrace our tendency to be cognitively lazy and unthinking by structuring the environment in such a way that doing so will lead to desirable outcomes (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Of course, this raises important ethical issues around who should be allowed to make such societal manipulations and which behaviours should be manipulated, that is, which outcomes are “desirable”?

Though concerns about choice paternalism are not misplaced, it is important to recognise that nudges do not rule out consumer freedom. Most nudges only really work when people are relatively indifferent about their choices (de Ridder et al., 2021) and the intervention is not so transparent as a manipulation as to elicit consumer reactance (see Koch et al., 2022). I (Stefan) can only speak for myself but, when I go to the supermarket wanting ice cream, I won’t be deterred by it being at the far end of the supermarket at the back of an icy-cold freezer. No amount of inconvenience is going to stop me from getting that ice cream. Likewise, when a meat lover encounters a menu with vegetarian options strategically featured at the top, no amount of nudging towards these options is likely to upend their desire for that sirloin steak.

The point is that nudges fail most when people have strong preferences. One example of this comes from a study by Just and Wansink (2009). They tried to reduce children’s unhealthy food choices by making fruit the default option compared to french fries in a school cafeteria. This intervention had no detectable effect on what the children ultimately ate, with 96% of them swapping from the default fruit to the french fries. This is presumably because their preferences were so strong that the default no longer mattered. 

Meat lovers tended to avoid information about pigs’ intelligence (Leach et al., 2022). Photo credit: Marek Piwnicki 

A love for meat can be a prior commitment that poses a significant barrier to change. My colleagues and I (Leach et al., 2022) provided omnivores with an intervention that could nudge them towards meat-free options: presenting information about food animals’ sentience. However, this informational nudge was more quickly disregarded by those with a strong preference for meat than those with a weak preference. Likewise, research by Possidonio et al. (2022) highlights how familiarity with food can render certain nudges ineffective. Possidonio and her colleagues found that animal reminders are not problematic for meat products that are highly familiar. They showed that even though consumers associate familiar, high-resemblance products with the animal source (e.g., thinking of chickens when seeing a roasted chicken), consumers still found such products appealing. This was not true for unfamiliar foods that resembled animals (e.g., roasted alligator). This is why British consumers have no problem chowing down on a whole turkey at Christmas or why Spanish consumers enjoy carving up a full leg of ham. 

Reflections and Conclusion 

There is a silver lining to this research on strong priors and nudging. Just as meat commitments often nullify the effects of nudges, the same is true for commitments that run in the opposite direction. For example, Taube and Vetter (2019) found that making a non-organic product the default option had little effect on those who had strong pro-environmental values. This study highlights the upside of consumer resistance to nudging – when a person has a strong commitment to ethical action, a nudge in the opposite direction is unlikely to override this commitment. 

Because even the most well-thought-out choice context can be rendered mute by strong preferences, we should not lose sight of how important it is to attempt to intervene directly on people’s motivations and commitments to eating meat. To do this may require thinking carefully about the sort of nudge one employs. When meat commitments are strong, simply making veggie options more accessible or provoking emotions with animal reminders may not be enough. Strategies may need to shift from these sorts of nudges to more informational and self-monitoring ones. Conversely, when it is impossible to convince consumers of the benefits or the rising popularity of a product, accessibility nudges may be a better place to start – in other words, providing exposure to the product may be an important first step.

Environments can be “hacked” to increase product accessibility. But consumers also need to understand why an alternative is good for them, have good options to choose from, believe that their actions are in line with societal trends, and that they have made the choice freely. Such nudges, when delivered non-coercively, have the benefit of preserving consumers’ sense of autonomy, which is important for maintaining long-term support for the shift in behaviour.

Authors: Stefan Leach and Jared Piazza

One Comment on “Nudging people away from meat: Promising directions and challenges

  1. Pingback: We won’t cut meat-eating until we put the planet before profit – Some View on the World

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