So I'm back in college now. I'm majoring in psychology, mostly because I feel that the best way to convince people to change their behavior is by understanding why they behave that way in the first place. Anyway, I recenty had to write a paper for my social psychology class. Of course, I managed to make my paper more about animal rights than social psychology. So I thought I would share it with all if you.
Social Psychology Action Paper
I am an animal rights activist, and am very interested in how social psychology affects the animal rights movement. I think it is the most important determining factor in the way people think about nonhuman animals. Two concepts that I think are particularly important are priming and the fundamental attribution error, priming as an obstacle that we must overcome in society and the fundamental attribution error as a mistake that many of us tend to make when dealing with the public.
Priming refers to the increased accessibility of certain schemas due to recent experiences. Higgins, Rholes and Jones conducted a study in which participants were asked to memorize a list of words and then, in a supposedly unrelated task, they were asked to read a paragraph about “Donald” and make a judgment about what kind of person he was. Those who had memorized a list of negative words judged him negatively, while those whose lists had contained more positive words judged him more positively. Demonstrating that, even when the words were not relevant to what they were doing, the priming greatly affected their judgment.
I think priming may pose the greatest challenge to animal rights activists, when it comes to outreach. Thanks to advertising from animal enterprises, specifically animal agriculture, our whole society is constantly being primed to think of nonhuman animals as commodities. It is very difficult to convince people to see animals as individuals when everywhere they look they see advertisements with the opposite message. Not only are we primed to think of animals as nothing more than a source of food, we are actually made to believe that they like it that way. A great many animal products use cartoons of happy, smiling animals on their packaging as if nothing could make the animals happier than becoming someone’s meal. This constant priming produces a mindset that is incredibly hard to overcome, and makes things very difficult for those of us who are trying to change the way people think about animals.
The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to overemphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while underemphasizing situational explanations. In 1967 Edward Jones and Victor Harris conducted a study in which they asked participants to read essays people had written regarding their feelings toward Fidel Castro. The participants automatically assumed that the authors believed what they had written and even after they were informed that the authors had been told whether to write a positive or negative essay they still believed that the authors had meant what they had written. This showed that even when they were made aware of the outside influence, the participants still tended to judge the character of the authors rather than their circumstances.
The reason I believe the fundamental attribution error is so important for the animal rights movement is that, I feel, many of us activists have a tendency to fall victim to it. For those of us who support animal rights, it is very hard to understand why other people don’t. Knowing how horrible the conditions are for animals in factory farms, labs etc. we can not understand how people can possibly still support these industries. At times it can be very hard not to think of them as “bad” people. I think it is extremely important for us not to forget the magnitude of the influence societal factors have over people’s lives and the decisions they make. Most people are not “bad” and thinking of them that way will only make it harder for us to reach out to them and help them to become more sympathetic to the suffering of nonhuman animals.
* Photo- Maria from Farm Sanctuary's Animal Acres.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)