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Veganism, Part 2: Psychological biases and food choice

Part 1 here.

I’m vegan for all the usual reasons. If you think you have an objection, I encourage you to look it up and see if someone’s addressed it here — they have a lot of common responses.

That’s not the topic of this post. This post is about how to make it easier, building from the psychology literature. I suspect the main thing holding people back from going all the way (or going vegetarian) is not that they don’t agree it’s a good thing, but that they feel it is hard. It would be silly to think that our food choices are immune to psychological biases, so it’s worth exploring why it might be easier than you think.

First, I think projection bias plays a large role here, in that people don’t realize how much their tastes will change, and tastes are mostly endogenous. There’s a reason that if you ask people what their favourite foods are, they will often point to food they ate when they were a child or food from their hometown. For most people, the example of switching between 2% and skim milk also seems to resonate: whichever one you were previously drinking, if you switch it will taste disgusting at first, but in time you get used to it, and in fact if you were to try to switch back you would find your original choice disgusting.

Recognizing that every choice you make is not just a choice about what to eat today but a choice about what you will want to eat in the future helps. It provides a very motivating and positive framing.

Another bias people have is that they think of all the things they know that they like to eat, and they have a hard time picturing what they would eat if they went vegan/vegetarian. A nice analogy I heard: people go around with a box their whole lives, and every time they find something they like, they put it in the box. When they get to the point of considering veg*nism, they compare their box of stuff with a new, empty box of what they would eat if they were veg*n. But it’s not a fair comparison, because they have had a long time to accumulate all those things in their box, and if they went veg*n, in time they would find other things to add to the veg*n box (although there would be a temporary cost).

Another thing that I think can be helpful psychologically is reframing the action so that instead of reducing meat, one adds vegetables/etc. If you add enough good, tasty stuff, you’ll be more likely to crowd out the rest.

The bigger problem, my fellow vegan economist friend Josh suggests, is information aversion. Also, the tendency for people to be inconsistent and biased when it would help them avoid cognitive dissonance. People are less likely to assign farm animals moral weight when they are hungry or after they were served meat. Josh, Emiliano and I are planning more research in animal advocacy.

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