In May of 2016, a study conducted by research company Ipsos MORI hit the headlines: “Number of vegans in Britain rises by 360% in 10 years” (The Telegraph - 18th May). This study found that there are now over half a million people over 15 years old following a vegan lifestyle in Britain, compared to a mere 150,000 people in 2006. Thats more than 1% of the population; thats the same amount of people who were born in Britain last year, how many people were diagnosed with cancer in 2015, or as the SomersetLive website pointed out - Britain now has more vegans than it does Sikhs.
One model which can be used to try to explain this rapid expansion is the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen). This model has three components which, theoretically, come together to form our intentions and thus the behaviours we perform. These three aspects are attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control, and one or all may have been changed in people who decide to go vegan:
Figure 1. Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour
Attitude is the opinion you have toward a behaviour. In the case of veganism, this is where animal welfare and environmental impacts come in. Netflix documentaries such as “Cowspiracy” and “Live and Let Live” are often what people cite as exposing them to the factors of welfare and 'turning' them vegan. They use shock tactics and graphic images, grabbing peoples attention with system 1 processing (the quick, automatic processing - Kahneman, 2011) and making them want to know more. When they have their attention they then provide viewers with “alarming facts at a fast and furious rate” (as stated by Alison Homewood, a writer on the ‘New Internationalist' blog), designed convince you through system 2's (careful, evaluative and effortful) processing that this is something that must change.
But you dont have to be an animal lover to have your attitude changed - personal health is a big attitude changing factor. The film “Change your Food, Change your Life” features a ‘nutrition expert’ explaining reduced risks of diseases such as cancer and diabetes, alongside generally higher energy levels. Although there is minimal research on this, there does seem to be protection against cardiovascular disease, some cancers and type-2 diabetes (Tai Le & Sabaté, 2014) when compared to non-vegetarians. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis also seem to be reduced when on a vegan diet (Ringertz et al 2001). If people are truly feeling the ‘high energy levels’ claimed by these programmes, it is a simple case of operant conditioning (eating vegan food is reinforced by higher energy (a pleasant feeling) so they are more likely to eat more vegan food).
Weight loss is a huge motivating factor for many people (Mintel found 65% of women tried to lose weight in 2013), and is another well advertised claim of a vegan diet. Studies have shown that vegans tend to have a low BMI and lower cholesterol (Key et al, 2006). They also have lower blood pressure and so a reduced risk of heart disease (Craig, 2009). Figure 2 is a photo posted by Teri Leventhal of her before and after a high calorie, low-fat vegan diet. It is easy to see how someone may see this and want to emulate her changes.
|Figure 2. Teri Leventhal: Claims this photo shows the difference in her appearance after starting a vegan diet|
If you aren't persuaded by animals or yourself there is a third factor - the climate in general. Beef, cheese and pork production have the highest greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram, while legumes (such as beans and lentils) are a low-emission, high protein food (Carlsson-Kanyama & Gonzalez, 2009).
There are other factors such as agricultural pollution and human rights which may change other peoples attitudes, but it is likely that at least one of the 3 mentioned above is likely to be important to each person, and if this is targeted there is capacity for attitude change.
Subjective norms are our perception of a behaviour, influenced by the opinions friends, family and role-models significant to the person. Celebrity influence which has a huge impact on opinion, even influencing political standings (Jackson & Darrow, 2005), so whats to say it doesn't effect opinion on veganism? It does seem as though the perception of vegans recently has changed from a slightly suspect tree-hugger, to something desirable and healthy. There are two things I suspect may have had an impact on this:
1) Celebrity endorsement:
If you search the internet for ‘vegan celebrities’, household names such as Ariana Grande, Ellen DeGeneres and Stevie Wonder appear. Miley Cyrus even has a pet pig which is vegan (alongside her and Liam Hemsworth). The huge celebrity following is certainly helping in changing peoples subjective norms, as if a celebrity says that that is the thing to do, their own opinion is influenced and as such, are more likely to change their intentions.The Vegan Society seem to be very aware of the power of celebrity in persuasion, it lists 32 ‘Famous Vegan Athletes’ on its website. The documentary “Conspiracy” was executively produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, this combination of celebrity, shock tactics and information is a killer combination - no wonder so many people are influenced by it.
2) Instagram and social media:
The Ipsos MORI report found nearly half (42%) of all vegans are in Britain are 15-34 years old, an age range particularly focussed on social media (90% of all Instagram users are under 35, Han et al. 2015). The Guardian ran a vegan related headline on 27th May of this year; “the rise of vegan teenager: 'More people are into it because of Instagram'”. This article interviewed young vegans as to why they had made the choice to become vegan. One said “they always show pictures of vegan people looking beautiful and healthy.” - this again makes it a more desirable as people, whether consciously or not, want to be 'beautiful and healthy' too. The high frequency at which adolescents view pictures with this kind of message can be high, increasing the availability of veganism. This may make them more likely to be receptive to it, as they can recall it easily and assume it is more prevalent than it is. This is no doubt one way in which people could have been influenced, as the online community changes subjective norms.
Perceived Behavioural Control (self-efficacy)
This is the degree to which you believe that you can control a behaviour. This is vital, as if you don't think you'll be able to do something then it is unlikely you'll try to do it. In the past veganism has been seen as difficult and unattainable, but according to Keith Coomber (writer for ‘Vegan Life’), attitudes have changed due to presentation in the media, stating “It’s no longer an extreme lifestyle, it’s easy and accessible”. This accessibility makes people’s perceived behavioural control increase, thus changing their intentions. People who likely have had an impact on the ease of a vegan diet are vegan YouTubers, two of the more well known ones being “Freelee the Banana Girl” (721,000 subscribers) and “Bonnierebecca” (187,000 subscribers). They post videos such as ‘Vegan school lunch ideas’ and ‘my quick/lazy pasta - vegan’. These are all carefully shot, with appetising and ‘instagrammable’ food, but most importantly focus heavily on the “easy” aspect.
A statistic suggesting that perceived behavioural control really does impact on decisions, is 88% of vegans in Britain live in urban areas, with a huge 22% of all British vegans living in London (from the same Ipsos MORI study). The accessibility of foods in cities, especially London, may be a factor in this massive growth of the vegan population.
With people having attitudes changed with shocking evidence of the treatment of animals, their subjective norms affected by celebrity endorsements and social media, and their perceived behavioural control increased with people informing them of how ‘easy’ it can be - it is perhaps no wonder so many peoples intentions have changed, and thus their behaviour.
In case you were wondering, no, I am not a vegan and never have been. Having said this - some of the videos out there however 'exposing' the meat industry have not been fun to research at all, and now I know how many people are embracing a vegan lifestyle, maybe I’ll consider it more seriously…
Carlsson-Kanyama, A., & González, A. D. (2009). Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89, 1704-1709.
Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89(5), 1627-1633.
Hafström, I., Ringertz, B., Spångberg, A., Von Zweigbergk, L., Brannemark, S., Nylander, I., & Klareskog, L. (2001). A vegan diet free of gluten improves the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis: the effects on arthritis correlate with a reduction in antibodies to food antigens. Rheumatology, 40, 1175-1179.
Jackson, D. J., & Darrow, T. I. (2005). The influence of celebrity endorsements on young adults’ political opinions. The Harvard international journal of press/politics, 10, 80-98.
Jang, J. Y., Han, K., Shih, P. C., & Lee, D. (2015). Generation like: Comparative characteristics in instagram. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 4039-4042.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
Key, T. J., Appleby, P. N., & Rosell, M. S. (2006). Health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 65, 35-41.
Le, L. T., & Sabaté, J. (2014). Beyond meatless, the health effects of vegan diets: findings from the Adventist cohorts. Nutrients, 6, 2131-2147.