This blog is adapted from the lunchtime Science Short Elif Çoker presented at the Oxford Museum of Natural History recently, ahead of LEAPs joint exhibition, Meat the Future. The exhibition will include up-to-date research on the impacts of meat on the planet and on our health, as well as a range of the most likely solutions from simple meat reduction, to high-tech meat replacements.
The talk focused on how we think about eating meat, how we make choices about food in general, and how our social environments and social networks matter in these choices.
In modern Western societies, we are over consuming meat, which has significant environmental and health impacts that can be mitigated with reduction. Most of us are not aware of these impacts, and meat consumption is a very socially, emotionally and even politically charged topic.
Humans are social animals; we rely on each other as useful sources of information. We observe others' behaviours to give us clues about the right course of action in a given situation, and we care about what our social networks value and approve of.
Our food choices are influenced by our social environments, and these social influences can be capitalised on to help people decrease meat consumption for healthier and more sustainable diets.
My research looks at how social norms work in the context of meat consumption. The social group we find ourselves in can determine expectations and unspoken rules about food choices, what should be consumed and how much, and how others would react if somebody went for an alternative that was not the normal option.
We know that individuals can reject behaviours associated with groups they do not want to associate with. In this way, some people want to stay away from meat alternatives or switching to a low- or no-meat diet because they associate these with social groups who they do not identify with. If these dietary choices are presented as something that anyone can give a try and adopt, it can remove some of the undesirability and set it as a norm that is more widely accepted.
In an experiment where researchers communicated that three in ten people have decreased their meat consumption in the last year, those exposed to the information were more likely to choose vegetarian dishes at a cafeteria. If we try to communicate changing trends and create a picture of what the default behaviour in the near future will look like, this can create a need to “pre-conform” to the new norm by changing your behaviour and adapting before the new trend becomes commonplace.
Almost all of our choices and decisions in life are influenced by external factors, no matter how independent we think we are. When it comes to purchasing and consuming behaviours, we are influenced by what is on offer, how it is presented, incentives or barriers to purchasing such as price promotions or taxes, and what everyone else is buying.
The less knowledge and experience we come into a situation with, the more likely we are to be affected by what others do and tell us to do. This includes taking cues from our environment that speak to our subconscious processing of stimuli to reach conclusions.
Research has shown that:
- The increased availability of a food item in a buffet setting can make that item appear more appealing and popular: researchers increasing the number of plant-based options at a cafeteria buffet found that people pick more vegetarian and less meat based meals
- The order and classification of how dishes are presented can have an effect on choices. When plant based dishes are presented in a separate "vegetarian" section of a menu, they do not get picked as much as when integrated into the menu, or if they are highlighted as "chef's special"
- Moving plant-based alternatives from a dedicated veggie aisle to next to the meat products encourages more supermarket visitors to give them a try
We tend to think of these nudges or behavioural interventions to be distinct methods to increase consumption of plant-based dishes and decreasing meat intake. But, it is also worth asking, how do these adjustments in the choice environment give us the subconscious message that the social norm is to choose the plant-based option?
Currently, we overestimate the amount of meat we need to eat, and under-estimate the negative impacts of excessive consumption on our health and our environment. In a world where almost all our decisions are influenced by myriad external factors, researchers at LEAP and elsewhere are trying to use the power of social norms to promote more sustainable and healthier diets for a better future for us all.