Before conducting my own study into the motivates and barriers for those trying to reduce or stop eating animal-based foods, I searched through existing research to see what others before me had found. What did I find?

Going back to some of the earliest studies into the subject, researchers and non-profits have almost always focused on two main motives: health and ethics (i.e. animals). One of the main pre-21st century studies into the topic divided their small sample of US vegetarians (n=19) into two distinct groups — ethical vs health vegetarians — and found that health vegetarians were likely to later become motivated by animals, while ethical vegetarians were unlikely to be motivated by health (Jabs et al. 1998).

In general, these two motives — health and animals — seem to be the most prominent. It does seem that reducers are more likely to be motivated by health, while abstainers (i.e. pescatarians, vegetarians, and vegans) are more likely to cite animal-based motives.

In two of the largest studies into meat reduction amongst the general population, saving money was also very popular , coming out as more prominent than health in one study and above animal welfare in the other (Eating Better 2013; Park et al.2014.)

In my own research (which I will be writing about here soon!) that included the largest sample of meat reducers and veg*ns, I found that animals were the most popular motive across all dietary groups for participants in UK-based reduction and vegan campaigns. However, while veg*ns were likely to be much more motivated by animals than by health (particularly vegetarians who were the least motivated by health of any group), reducers were only slightly more influenced by animals than by health.

Other popular motives include: the environment, food safety, and global inequalities. The environment was actually almost as popular as animals within my study sample (and, interestingly, not just for those in environmentally-based campaigns). However, this may reflect more about those who are drawn to such campaigns than those who we could be reaching. In other words, as campaign participants were likely to be motivated by altruistic factors (a.k.a. “pro-social” reasons), they may simply be more likely than the general population to be motivated by the environment.

What does this mean for those of us interested in promoting veganism?

As I discussed previously, there is an engagement gap in terms of promoting reduction and veg*nism for reasons that may be more likely to (at least initially) appeal to those not yet reducing or eating diets heavy in animal-derived foods, particularly around health.

However, in my research I found that animal protection was the most effective motivator in terms of levels of reduction and meeting of individual reduction goals. Health was, instead, most effective as a secondary motivator, particularly when animal protection was a primary motivator. It was, however, related to eating more fish. Being motivated by finances, on the other hand, was related to reducing less. 

As I will be talking about in the upcoming weeks, it may be that a more targeted, stepped approach is needed for those who are more motivated by health or other “pro-self” (Verain et al. 2016) motives (e.g. health, taste, or price):

First, create campaigns focused on health that promote a healthy plant-based diet. It may be that (as I found in my research), some meat eaters are unwilling to fully abstain: a more clear reduction goal could be appropriate in this case, such as only eating meat for one or two meals a week.

Second, once participants are involved in the campaign, expose them to information about animal-based motives in a way that is not overwhelming and likely to increase their ethical investment in dietary change. For those involved in a reduction campaign, a stepped approach could be most effective, such that goals increase over time leading to a fully vegan diet.

Ultimately, as Casey Taft argues, animal protection is advocates’ “strongest and most defensible argument” (2016, p.83). Not only that, but it was the most effective in promoting sustained dietary change. Where people are not motivated by animals, other motives may be more effective in getting them willing to think about reductions. But, if we can then get them thinking about the animals differently and wanting to do their part to reduce their suffering, we may be more likely to get them to later go vegan and to stay vegan.

Resources cited and further reading on motives:

Eating Better (2013) Briefing: Public attitudes & behaviors research. Available from: http://www.eating-better.org/uploads/Documents/Briefing_Eating_Better_YouGov_survey.doc (accessed 11 September 2015).

Jabs J, Devine CM and Sobal J (1998) Model of the Process of Adopting Vegetarian Diets: Health Vegetarians and Ethical Vegetarians. Journal of Nutrition Education 30(4): 196–202.

Janssen M, Busch C, Rödiger M, et al. (2016) Motives of consumers following a vegan diet and their attitudes towards animal agriculture. Appetite 105: 643–651.

Lee L and Simpson I (2016) Are we eating less meat?: A British Social Attitudes Report. Available from: http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/1116002/vegetarian-society-bsa-2014.pdf (accessed 22 November 2016).

Park A, Bryson C and Curtice J (2014) British Social Attitudes: the 31st Report. London. Available from: bsa-31.natcen.ac.uk.

Timko CA, Hormes JM and Chubski J (2012) Will the real vegetarian please stand up? An investigation of dietary restraint and eating disorder symptoms in vegetarians versus non-vegetarians. Appetite 58(3): 982–990.

Verain MCD, Sijtsema SJ and Antonides G (2016) Consumer segmentation based on food- category attribute importance: The relation with healthiness and sustainability perceptions. Food Quality and Preference 48: 99–106.

3 thoughts on “Why do people go vegan?: What research says

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s