Encouraging Positive Actions for Animals: What Advocates Should Know About Motivating the Average Person
From All-Creatures.org Animal Rights Activism Articles Archive


Jessica Bridgers, World Animal Net
June 2015

The key is realizing that not everyone thinks the way we do, and when you communicate with your target audience, you won’t necessarily get your desired outcome by using the same talking points that worked on you.

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As animal advocates faced with difficult and heart-wrenching problems on a daily basis, it can become all too easy to think that the people whose behavior we seek to change operate using the same type of reasoning that we do. When we begin thinking that everyone is operating using the same basic rationale it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why most people, when confronted with the same information, do not adopt the same behaviors that we ourselves have adopted.

The often unfortunate consequence of thinking this way is that we become resentful of, and frustrated with, people who refuse to change their behavior. And when we foster this negative mentality towards the people we want to change, it hinders our strategy in communicating with them, and often makes our work less effective. So what’s the key?

The key is realizing that not everyone thinks the way we do, and when you communicate with your target audience, you won’t necessarily get your desired outcome by using the same talking points that worked on you. You have to know your target audience, and more importantly, you need to know how they are motivated and thus what messaging and language will reach them most effectively.

Self-Determination Theory

Here’s where a basic understanding of some psychological principles can come in handy. A key fact is that people are motivated to adopt, or not adopt, new behaviors for completely different reasons. Self-determination theory (SDT) provides a framework for understanding these different personalities and motivations. There are three main concepts that are helpful to understand and apply to advocacy work:

  1. People can be either intrinsically motivated, or extrinsically motivated. People who are extrinsically motivated may be motivated by goals of financial success, appearance, and fame (for example), whereas people who are intrinsically motivated may be motivated by concepts such as community, relationships, and personal growth. Behaviors that result from these motivation styles are closely related to one’s social and cultural environment.
  2. These motivations are predicated on what are seen to be three basic psychological needs: autonomy (the ability to act of one’s own volition), competence, and relatedness (a sense of connection to those around you).
  3. Extrinsically motivated individuals may adopt new behaviors through a process called internalization. New behaviors and values may be incorporated by these individuals because of social expectations and standards, unconscious adoption of behaviors and values from others, or the identification with a particular social group, to name a few. When someone has internalized a behavior, he or she begins to see the behavior as a choice that is made as an expression of his or her personal values. It is believed that supporting feelings of autonomy and relatedness are particularly important to the process of internalization.

Case Study: Meat Consumption in the Netherlands

These concepts can all seem a bit lofty and not extremely useful or relevant, so let’s take a closer look at how these concepts can help us to understand why some people adopt a behavior, while others do not.

In 2014, Dutch researchers examined how SDT could help them explain why some people were more likely to adopt plant-based diets than others, and to determine if SDT could provide insights as to how to encourage non-adopters to become adopters.

For this particular study, the researchers defined the three psychological needs as follows: 1) competence: cooking and tasting skills, 2) autonomy: perceived choice, and 3) relatedness: a sense of meaning and connection to people, nature, or the universe as a whole.

What they found was striking.

Individuals who were intrinsically motivated or had internalized motivation regarding their food choices were more likely to feel a sense of relatedness and solidarity when making these choices, and also more likely to buy meat-free products or carefully sourced (organic or free-range) meats. As people internalized motivations for food choices, they became increasingly distant from the “dominant” pattern of eating characterized by high meat consumption.

Individuals who were extrinsically motivated, on the other hand, tended to be more likely to purchase instant products and less likely to reflect on their food choices. Researchers found that this was likely related to a “low degree of autonomy (i.e. low levels of perceived choice and lack of autonomy support), a lack of identification with nature, and the impact of contextual factors such as daily hassles. These circumstances make it more likely that consumers will choose the easy way and follow the dominant pattern that is very well supported by their food environment (e.g. supermarkets).”

While SDT helped understand why people make these choices, it also allows us to understand the needs of externally motivated “non-adopters” and help identify ways of motivating them to make animal-friendly food choices. Since this group is largely influenced by their social and cultural environment and experiences a low sense of autonomy and relatedness, work in these areas may hold great potential. While the researchers believe more research is needed on how extrinsically motivated consumers are affected by their food environment, they offer several strategies which may foster progress:

  1. Movements that are associated with “higher social status for ‘going healthy and green’” can act as a motivator for externally motivated individuals.
  2. Cost barriers between meat and non-meat diets can be removed.
  3. The number of non-meat diet options available can be increased (thus increasing autonomy).

If using this information to develop a Meatless Monday or other meat reduction campaign, a next logical step would be to test these respective strategies on extrinsically motivated individuals, and see how each affects decision-making in terms of meat consumption.

The entire research paper can be downloaded here, and an extensive website of resources on self-determination theory can be found here.

Just one more example:

An all too familiar struggle for many animal advocates is how to increase adoptions from animal shelters. An important component to this problem is changing how people view animals from shelters. While intrinsically motivated individuals and those who have already internalized the “adopt, don’t shop!” message may be “on board” with the concept of adopting from shelters, extrinsically motivated individuals may be more motivated by the concept of having a certain type of breed that conveys status and wealth. The fun video below is the perfect example of a campaign that recognized this motivating factor, and instead of spinning their wheels with the same message that wasn’t working, they leveraged this motivational type, successfully increasing adoptions and improving the status of mixed-breed dogs in Costa Rican culture! Watch the video here... "When you adopt a mutt, you adopt a unique breed."

Read more at Animal Rights Activist Strategies