Behavioural and attitudinal change in animal products consumption
What interventions are most effective in changing attitudes and behaviour towards farmed animals?

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This profile is tailored towards students studying economics, history, law, political sciences, psychology and cognitive sciences and sociology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

Hundreds of billions of animals are used and slaughtered every year for food. This includes 70 billion land animals (of which chickens are the vast majority), an estimated 100 billion farmed fish and possibly several times as many wild caught fish, as well as billions of other animals such as crustaceans.

Most of these animals suffer lives of extreme confinement if they are farmed, and inhumane slaughter whether they are farmed or wild. The Sentience Institute estimates that in 2019, 99% of farmed land animals and fish in the US were in factory farms. These animals are particularly likely to experience untreated injuries, chronic infections, separation from their offspring and other severe constraints on their natural behaviours.

The use of farmed animals also poses risks to humans. Poor conditions lead to a higher prevalence of disease among farmed animals, which in turn increases the likelihood of pathogens passing from animals to humans and causing pandemics. Unhealthy animals require more antibiotics, potentially contributing to rising antimicrobial resistance in humans (although more research is needed to establish the size of this effect). The animal agriculture industry also has a significant environmental impact. It is responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture also causes land degradation, increases water shortage problems and reduces biodiversity. Growing crops to feed them to farm animals rather than growing crops directly for human consumption is also vastly inefficient. By 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people in the world to feed, and demand for animal products is expected to rise significantly. To produce enough food by 2050, we will need a more efficient system.

Despite the huge scale of these problems, the plight of animals utilised by humans for food receives comparatively little funding or attention from philanthropists and researchers. Encouraging people and institutions to reduce their use of animal products seems like a promising way to improve the world. There is generally less research into attitudes towards animals and animal product consumption in low- and middle-income countries. It could be particularly valuable to do further research on these countries, although as this post from Faunalytics describes, if you’re doing research on a culture you don’t have lived experience of, avoid practicing parachute science and learn about the culture you’re doing research on ‘from their own viewpoint by focusing on that literature and collaborating with scholars from the region.’

See here for an introduction to the importance of improving animal welfare, or listen to this 2017 podcast and the 2022 update from 80000 Hours with Lewis Bollard on the importance of ending factory farming. For an introduction to this area with a focus on corporate reform see the talk below. 

Explore existing research

Meta-reviews

 

Institutional advocacy and change

 

 

Understanding attitudes to animals and animal product consumption

 

 

Animal products and climate change

 

 

Individual diet change

 

 

PHAIR is a psychology journal focused on how people perceive, treat and interact with animals, that you could explore to find further research (and could consider publishing in if you do research on this topic!)

  • Joy, Melanie (2009) Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Conari Press
  • Sunstein, Cass (2019) How Change Happens, The MIT press
  • Dhont, Kristof and Gordon Hodson (2019) Why We Love and Exploit Animals, Routledge
  • Singer, Peter (2011) The Expanding Circle, Princeton University Press
  • Singer, Peter (2023) Animal Liberation Now, Penguin
  • Herzog, Hal (2010) Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, HarperCollins
  • The SHARKLAB research group at the University of Kent, which is focused on ‘the processes leading to prejudiced and compassionate attitudes and behaviours towards non-human animals.’
  • The Sentience Institute, a think tank researching ‘long-term social and technological change, particularly moral circle expansion.’
  • The Credence Institute, a research institute focused on changing ‘attitudes and behaviours harmful to the interests of animals,’ particularly in South Africa.
  • The PHAIR Society, an organisation which ‘aims to advance and promote scientific research and education…related to how people perceive, treat, and interact with non-human animals’
  • The Tiny Beam Fund, which offers PhD funding and suggests directions for research.
  • Faunalytics, an organisation researching how animal advocacy can be as effective as possible.

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

  • What are the true costs of various animal products when we take externalities like cheap, exploited labor into account? Is it possible to create a calculation that includes the days/years of suffering by human laborers (similarly to how we do with animals)? Furthermore, what is the potential benefit of using these types of cost analyses in persuasive campaigns that highlight the overlap between animal and social justice issues? (Knowledge Gaps: Animal-Focused Research Ideas For Grad Students)
  • Advocates have long known that the animal agriculture industry engages in humanewashing and greenwashing to help make its products and practices seem more animal- and environmentally-friendly than they really are. What are the most common methods they use to do so, and are there ways advocates and laypeople could respond to such techniques using a legal framework? Since these specific techniques may be regulated by federal or regional laws, there are many opportunities for scholars to study these mechanics in their own regions, review certifications and claims across a wide range of products, and compare against what we know about welfare standards for those animals. (Knowledge Gaps: Animal-Focused Research Ideas For Grad Students)
  • Research could explore the most promising opportunities for preventing the factory farming of octopuses. This is a brand new issue that could be advocated against strongly now so that it doesn’t have the chance to grow or spread. (adapted from Knowledge Gaps: Animal-Focused Research Ideas For Grad Students)
  • How does progress on an animal issue in one country or region affect advocacy on that same issue in another region? What are the harmful societal or environmental consequences of investing in animal agriculture in developing nations? What are the economic benefits politicians could expect to see from greater investment in plant-based agriculture and manufacturing? How does progress on an issue like animals used in science (see above!) impact efforts for other animal issues? (Knowledge Gaps: Animal-Focused Research Ideas For Grad Students)

Some questions and topics that seem particularly valuable to explore are below:

  • How can we match motivational tools to individuals’ particular barriers in order to increase veg*n uptake and retention? (Faunalytics research agenda)
  • Apart from their perceived healthiness as foods, what are the biggest barriers to acceptance of messaging about not eating chicken and/or fish? (e.g., misinformation about sentience, perceived as very different from self). (Faunalytics research agenda)
  • Are there specific ways of presenting fish and chicken suffering that are more successful with the general public than others? (Faunalytics research agenda)
  • Can we show a link between first- or second-hand exposure to animal slaughter and PTSD or secondary traumatic stress? (e.g. in current/former slaughterhouse workers). See this paper as an example of related research, which also contains suggestions for further research. (Faunalytics research agenda)
  • Research suggests that kids are set up to be more empathic toward animals, but that they’re trained out of it as they get older. Anecdotally, we have reason to believe that humane education can meaningfully shape kids’ attitudes toward animals — possibly in a way that could have a bigger impact on society if we could understand it well enough to hone in on the best methods. Current literature is limited by a lack of control groups, and by a range of difficulties in studying kids. It is especially challenging to study kids over a long time period. Academics are well-positioned to do longer-term research, especially in a developmental psych lab. (Knowledge Gaps: Animal-Focused Research Ideas For Grad Students)
  • Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of interventions to reduce the consumption or production of meat and animal products, such as educational appeals. In many of these studies, interventions such as educational appeals appeared effective. However, many existing studies used designs that can be biased. For example, some studies relied on what people said they ate rather than what they actually ate, and there are known limits to the accuracy of people’s memory of their food consumption. In addition, some studies may have attracted participants who were more receptive to the animal-related messages or were otherwise more open to changing their diets. Further, not all participants completed the studies, so we don’t know how the tactics affected them. Finally, in some studies the two groups of people compared—those who were and were not exposed to the tactic—may not have been well matched, making the comparison invalid. Some more recent studies have used stronger methodologies, but we need a much larger evidence base of such studies to inform concrete advocacy tactics. An effective thesis topic could implement methodological recommendations to contribute to a stronger evidence base. (proposed by Maya Mathur)

From a more theoretical perspective, consider exploring the psychology of speciesism, moral circle expansion, carnism or compassion for non-human animals (e.g. validating and exploring existing measures in different countries and populations). You could utilise existing datasets, for example the ones listed here by Faunalytics.

You could also look at the paper ‘Priorities for social science and humanities research on the challenges of moving beyond animal-based food systems’ for inspiration.

Questions that seem particularly valuable to explore include:

You could also look at the paper ‘Priorities for social science and humanities research on the challenges of moving beyond animal-based food systems’ for inspiration.

Further resources

Effective animal advocacy resources from Rethink Priorities links to many suggestions for further reading, research repositories, blogs, conferences and more that can help you get started in this area.

To find support, collaborators and projects to get involved with, check out RECAP, a transdisciplinary community of researchers working on reducing animal product consumption and the organisations listed earlier in this profile, such as PHAIR and Faunalytics. This community of behavioural scientists is another way of connecting with researchers interested in this area. You could also contact Faunalytics during their virtual office hours for research advice.

Apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area. 

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

The Animal Advocacy Research Fund supports research related to increasing concern for animals and decreasing animal product consumption. You can view research the fund has supported here.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

If you’re interested in other research directions that could help farmed animals specifically, take a look at our profiles focused on increasing the appeal of alternative proteins, improving conditions for farmed animals and developing cultivated and plant-based alternatives to animal products.

You could also contribute to farmed animal welfare by doing research on moral circle expansion and understanding the impact of social movements.

Contributors

This profile was last updated 14/06/2023. Thanks to Courtney Dillard, Andrea Polanco, Maya Mathur, Shiva Pauer and Josh Tasoff for helpful feedback on this profile. All errors remain our own. Learn more about how we create our profiles.

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