Article Summary

  • People are heavily influenced by the groups they’re a part of and the social networks they’re connected to.
  • If we want people to get more active for animals, we have to focus on getting them in groups of activists. We can’t simply rely on the person to get active and stay active by themselves.
  • In the long run, the social network that a person is in could be more powerful than the desires and characteristics of that individual.
  • This also means that we need to make it as easy as possible for people to start becoming a part of new activist social groups, since there are strong incentives to stay in their current social networks.

Introduction

Let’s start with some mind-blowing facts.

  • Obesity (source)
    • If someone you’re connected to becomes obese, you’re 45% more likely than normal to become obese. This jumps to 57% if you say the person is your friend—and your chances increase by 171% if you both say that you’re friends (in other words, if the other person also calls you a friend).
    • If a connection of your connection (two degrees of separation, someone who you don’t know) becomes obese, you become 20% more likely than normal to become obese.
    • Finally, if you have three degrees of separation from someone who becomes obese (a friend of a friend of a friend…), you still become 10% more likely than normal to become obese yourself.
  • Smoking (source)
    • If you have a contact who smokes, you’re 61% more likely than normal to be a smoker.
    • If a contact’s contact smokes, you’re 29% more likely to be a smoker.
    • If a contact’s contact’s contact smokes, you’re 11% more likely to be a smoker.
  • Fitness (source)
    • The eventual overall fitness of randomly assigned Air Force Academy squadrons is primarily determined by the least fit person in the squadron.
  • Personality Traits (source)
    • Friends and romantic partners are more alike across many personality traits than they would be with strangers.

Finally, I also found this: “According to research by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard, [the people you habitually associate with] determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.” (source) I couldn’t find the primary source for this research though, and 95% seems quite a bit too high to me, but the basic point remains the same.

Holy crap.

Social groups matter

All of this research illustrates a lesson that we in the animal rights movement need to take very seriously:

The people in our social networks matter a ton—in fact, our social networks may be one of the most important parts of our lives.

This has far-reaching implications for how we should approach our work.

“She doesn’t want to go alone.”

A few months ago, I asked my friend out for a drink to talk about activism. I knew she was thinking about getting more involved, but hadn’t really taken a big dive into anything specific yet. We talked about what kinds of activism she’s heard of, and what she’s thinking about trying, and what her preferred type of activism would be in an ideal world.

She had heard of the main grassroots groups: Direct Action Everywhere, The Save Movement, and Anonymous for the Voiceless. She also spent some time at one of our local sanctuaries, Luvin Arms.

As we talked, a few things became apparent:

First, my friend was probably going to find a way to get involved in activism eventually, with or without friends going with her.

Second, she would get involved faster and stay involved longer if she had a supportive social network encouraging her to do so.

And third, some of her vegan friends wouldn’t get involved if they didn’t have a social group pushing them to do so.

For example, we talked about one of our mutual friends, who was also interested in getting involved but was way more hesitant to go to anything. “She doesn’t want to go alone,” my friend told me about a “Cube of Truth” demonstration put together by Anonymous for the Voiceless. “So we’re thinking about trying to go together sometime.”

I don’t think this is an exception. I think this is the rule. And we need to figure out how to work with it.

People do what their friends do

Whether consciously or not, we like to conform to the groups that we’re in. That conformity leads to us acting like the group, believing like the group, and ultimately obtaining the same kinds of results as the group. (Remember the mind-blowing stats at the beginning about obesity, smoking, and fitness?)

It starts when we’re very young. As soon as we pay attention to what others think about us, peer pressure kicks in. (source) This can be good or bad, depending on what exactly that pressure is.

For example, if all of your friends are animal activists, you probably can’t help but get active yourself—it’s what all of your friends are doing, after all.

Likewise, if all of your friends and family binge-watch TV every night and never talk about animal exploitation at all, it’s going to be extremely difficult to form habits different from those. The moment you start doing different things is the moment you start isolating yourself. Unless, that is, you’re so influential that you can get the whole group to change its habits.

We like to conform with the members of our “tribe”, which some sociologists define as tight-knit human groups of 20-150 people. (source) If we feel like we can’t conform, then we try to find a tribe where we can.

Self-induced isolation

The moment that someone starts going down the path of being vegetarian or vegan and caring about animals is usually the moment that they start going against the norms of the groups (“tribes”) they’re in. (Unless they’re going vegan because they stumbled into a group of vegans, in which case it’s a socially normative behavior.)

Believing something different from the majority causes an emotional response, (source) and it could lead to lower levels of social support which means worse psychological health. (source)

This is a very precarious place for someone to be in as a vegan or an activist. It’s no wonder that many people find it too difficult to be different, and they fall back into the ever-flowing stream of the culture of their group.

Solutions

There are a few ways we can approach this issue as a movement, but all of them require thinking very hard about human needs and interactions.

Solution #1—Plug the person into a new social group

This might be the easiest and most thorough solution, as it leverages existing groups of activists and doesn’t require the person to influence their existing social group.

Since social networks are so important for all of us and dictate much of our lives, we can’t simply assume that everyone is going to blaze a new trail on their own. Thus for every person who wants to get active for animals, we could find a way to get them plugged into a new social network of activists, where the default activities are based on helping animals.

Of course, this assumes a few things:

  1. It assumes that there’s an existing activist network close to the person, or that the person is willing to move to be close to a network;
  2. It assumes that the person wants to be part of a new network;
  3. It assumes that the person wants to be part of this new network; and,
  4. It assumes that the network wants to take in a new person.

If any one of these assumptions doesn’t hold, then it might not work for the person to be plugged into an existing activist network.

For example, research shows that influence from peers only works when the individual wants to remain in the group. If the activities of the group are too undesirable to that individual, then they may drop out and join a different group. (source)

This is an important point that I think we forget a lot of the time. We can’t simply assume that people are going to be willing to join any new social network or activist group. People are very different from one another, and despite how powerful of connecting forces veganism and animal activism are (and they do bring people together), they aren’t powerful enough to overcome all preexisting desires and personality traits of individuals.

A rowdy group of people who love theatrical protests probably isn’t going to be the best place for a quiet person who loves programming. If someone is really invested in outdoor activities like hiking and rock climbing, they’re probably going to need to fulfill that part of the life somehow. There are only so many hours in a day, so it would be easier for them if they could find some activists who also like hiking and climbing.

There need to be spaces for all kinds of people.

Also, remember my friend from above who wanted to go to an activism event but didn’t want to go by herself: How do you get someone like that into a new activist network in the first place?

One solution could be to start by going to where that person is rather than expecting them to come to you—for example, being aware of who is liking your Facebook posts and proactively reaching out to them to grab coffee or have a phone call, rather than expecting people to RSVP to your events or take part in your online campaigns.

Solution #2—Change the person’s current group culture

If people don’t want to join new social groups, then they can try to change their current group to reflect the values they want to be surrounded by.

This can be very difficult, though, because it requires shifting the dynamics of the whole group to be focused on animal activism. Unless the new vegan / activist is very influential, they’ll probably have a hard time creating a whole new group dynamic in their current situation.

Nevertheless, there are psychologically sound ways to try approaching that issue.

Solution #3—Help the person create a new group

It could be the case that someone is really excited and ready to create their own new group of activists. Or, maybe even if they aren’t fully prepared, we could help people gain the knowledge and get the resources required to get going.

Every group and tactic had to start somewhere, and sometimes the best new ideas and approaches come from people just coming into the movement because of their fresh perspective. Starting a new group or network can also be a great option for people who don’t currently live close to other activist groups.

I think the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) Organizer’s Handbook is a great starting resource for people interested in building something from the ground up, even if they aren’t interested in the tactics or strategies that DxE uses.

Solution #4—Plug the person into a new digital group

Digital social groups aren’t as powerful as in-person relationships, and I’m not sure how much of the research on group influence would translate to a digital environment. But if this is the only option (or the easiest option), then it might be a good solution for someone until they can find an in-person group.

These digital groups could be fairly hands-off and disconnected from each other, like the group of people who follow vegan activists like Earthling Ed and watch his videos. They could be slightly more interconnected, like Challenge 22 Facebook groups. Or they could be fully interconnected online mentoring programs or relationships between individual activists or groups of activists.

The important thing is that the person has a space where they’re being influenced and supported in the direction that they want to be—the direction of increased activism and participation in the movement.

Conclusion

There’s very strong evidence that our social networks influence us immensely.

So when we’re trying to get more people active in the movement for animals, we can’t simply ask how to get one person involved—we have to ask how to get the person into an active group that’s taking action for animals.

And if the person is currently all alone, we need to ask why they would come to any event (or join any Facebook page) in the first place. The answer to that question is going to involve feelings of group membership and belonging, and we need to be designing spaces with those concepts in mind.

If the stereotype is a lonely vegan, then let’s figure out how to turn that person into a connected and empowered activist.


Sources


Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.

We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.

Subscribe To The AMP Newsletter

Subscribe To The AMP Newsletter

Only useful blogs and resources to help you build the movement for animals.

You've subscribed! You will now receive awesomeness in your inbox.