(featured image: Katrin Gilger CC BY)
Campaigns may not make many ideological converts, but they can be good at facilitating lasting changes in behaviour
Last Saturday was the first day of February, and yet my daughter did not consume any meat, nor other animal products. If this is a puzzling statement to you, let me explain. In 2014, Jane Land and Matthew Glover launched Veganuary, an annually recurring campaign in the UK, aimed at promoting a vegan lifestyle: eat vegan for a month. This year, my daughter and her husband – both lovers of good food, including meat and seafood – decided to give it a go. And while I didn’t expect them to give up in despair halfway through, I had assumed they would celebrate their achievement by means of an animal protein feast as soon as January was over.
To be fair, my daughter has not quite turned vegan – she has no intention of completely giving up steak, bacon, eggs, fish, prawn or lobster any time soon. Yet somehow, eating vegan for a month seems to have materially changed her behaviour – and that kind of thing piques my interest. What has happened?
Social, timely and easy – a powerful threesome
Veganuary exploits a key lever for behavioural change: it is social. When we see other people do something, the threshold for us to follow suit is lowered, and that is the force of mass campaigns. Movember has been seeking to raise awareness of men’s health issues (like prostate and testicular cancer, and men’s suicide) since 2004 by encouraging men to grow their moustaches (“mo” in slang) during November. Stoptober, established by Public Health England in 2012, is an annual event helping participants to stop smoking that runs during (you guessed it) October.
And like Dry January (another British public health initiative since 2014, urging people to abstain from alcohol for a month), the choice of this month is not arbitrary. Quite aside from the fact that ‘January’ is the most appropriate month for constructing the portmanteau term Veganuary, it is a timely setting for a change towards a healthier lifestyle. Immediately after the excesses around the year-end festivities we are more inclined to – at least temporarily – take it easy with booze and food. Perhaps more importantly, it takes advantage of the fresh start effect, a term coined in a paper by behavioural scientists Hengchen Dai, Katy Milkman and Jason Riis at the Wharton Business School. Behavioural changes linked to Mondays, the first of the month, or the start of the year are more likely to succeed, they found.
Retailers have amplified the campaign through displays of vegan products, notably alternatives to those containing animal protein (I had no idea there was a milk alternative made from split peas, with the supertrendy name M.LK). This contributes to a third key lever: they made it easy for consumers to switch. “Make it easy” is how Richard Thaler, Nobel laureate and one of the pioneers of behavioural economics summarizes the concept of Nudge he popularized together with Cass Sunstein.
But think about it: we don’t do everything that is social, timely and easy, especially if it is something else than we are doing habitually. So, while these levers may help, there must be more to making behavioural change stick. And there is, in the case of Veganuary.
No lecturing, please
There are several reasons why one might (some even argue, should) embrace a vegan lifestyle. The Vegan Society, established in the UK in 1944, adopted the doctrine that “man should live without exploiting animals”. Convincing an entire nation to give up meat and fish by lecturing them about morality would seem quite a tall order. Less ideological arguments maintain that a diet containing less meat and animal products is healthier and more environmentally sustainable. People might find it easier to get behind these aims, even to pursue them. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions (behaviouralists speak of the intention-action gap). Exhibiting a new behaviour for a while is one thing. Sticking with it is quite another.
So what is it that really made my daughter have another vegan meal on February 1st, rather than a juicy steak, a hearty bouillabaisse, or wok-fried tiger prawns? One factor she reports is the suspension, for a whole month, of prevailing habits. If we’re a conventional eater, we instinctively think of “meat and two veg” (the phrase is a common British English idiom) as the prototype dinner, with the meat often being the central element of a meal. This is a strong heuristic, a mental rule of thumb we use to facilitate decision-making (and goodness knows, choosing what to eat, week in, week out, can be a burden). If we are not familiar with vegan cooking, we simply don’t even consider a vegan alternative: ignorance is a common obstacle to behaviour change.
Veganuary creates the necessary conditions to weaken this heuristic. If you have to do something else than what you habitually do, a whole month long (rather than, say, have a vegan day once per week), the old routine fades, and a new one can take its place. My daughter now sees a no-meat dinner as the default option. It has been reframed as an ordinary, rather than exotic and rare choice.
In her specific case, there was another heuristic that needed dealing with. Despite growing up in the UK, where baked beans are a staple food (notably among students, who tend to consume it served on a piece of toast), she has always had a visceral aversion to this delicacy and by extension to almost all pulses (except peas). But she adopted an “I will try anything at least once” attitude at the beginning of last month. Over the period she has discovered that chick peas, kidney beans, lentils and so on are actually not bad… not bad at all, perfectly OK, even. (Still no baked beans, though!)
The early successes of surprisingly tasty vegan meals stimulated a spirit of experimentation: trying out new recipes, and indeed creating meals from scratch. This activates a kind of IKEA effect: when we make something ourselves, we are more attached to it and like it more. (One of the helpful nudges here was having several acclaimed vegan cookbooks within easy reach in the kitchen; another one were the campaign’s regular emails with tips and recipes, keeping the idea salient.)
Perhaps there is one final element that played a role: the commitment effect. She had announced their intention to participate in Veganuary to friends and family, and even though it was not as if she would have been disowned and shunned if she had not stuck with it, not wanting to lose face may well have helped them stay the course.
Attraction as the clincher
But above all, the behavioural change – embracing vegan meals as a fully-fledged option, as the default even – was down to a fourth factor: vegan food quickly became appealing in its own right, an option not involving compromise and trade-offs on the important tastiness criterion. This was possible through the judicious combination of the external context established by the nationwide Veganuary campaign, which provided the three key elements of being social, timely and easy, with the personalization that complemented and reinforced it, making the idea attractive. (If you are familiar with the simple behavioural framework developed by the Behavioural Insights Team, you will have recognized the components of the corresponding acronym: EAST.)
Veganuary will not have turned the nation into full-blown vegans. But it has nudged many people (like my daughter) into reconsidering their food habits, and adopt lasting new habits. This is an important insight where societal change is concerned: what people think often matters less than what they do.
Of course, it’s only been a few days since the end of Veganuary, but I think my daughter’s entirely voluntary choice to willingly have a vegan meal the day after the campaign ended is a good predictor of future behaviour in this case: it is indicative of a change in mindset.
Such mindset change is often thought to be an essential precursor to profound and lasting behavioural change. A mindset that is in line with the desired behaviour is indeed crucial for a new behaviour to persist: we maintain new behaviours more easily if we want to, than if we have to. But this anecdote illustrates how, sometimes, mindset change follows behavioural change. It’s easier to change someone’s mind by giving them an experience than by persuading them.
That is an insight that can serve us well way beyond our dinner plate.